When we last heard from Mase, he was in a bad, bad way. His sophomore album had flopped critically (no big deal; heads would never admit to digging anything so pop-friendly) and commercially (yes big deal; without record sales, what's a pop-friendly guy to do?). Still, his announcements that he had become a born-again Christian, followed by his subsequent retirement from rap to become a full-time minister, were stunning revelations. Now Mase has unretired; his new album Welcome Back hit stores in late August and Canal Street a couple weeks before that. As you'd expect, it's a proselytizing piece of pop. As you might not expect, Mase (or, to use his preferred spelling, Ma$e), spends far more time preaching the glory of the Almighty Dollar, not the Almighty.
Welcome Back has so much backstory on its own that it's hard to remember just how exciting Mase was when he first came on the scene. Back in '97, hip hop was just beginning to taste the full fruit of its cultural takeover, and, as Puffy's main man, Mase was front and center. A 20-year-old Harlem kid with a California-cool voice, Mason Betha's primary aesthetic appeal rested in the dichotomy between the words he spat (often morally reprehensible) and the way he spat it (that huggably soft drawl of his). It's one thing merely to rap "A nigga smack me I'ma smack him back / If it lead to the guns then that be that"; it's quite another to yawn it. Back when the rap world was still figuring out you could rap raunchy over radio-ready beats and still get airplay, Mase was the first to walk the line.
But his newfound Christianity eliminates this tension from Welcome Back. Predictably, Mase's whole tone has changed: he's "just a bad boy gone clean", which means no more cursing, no more drugs (including Champagne), no more violence, no more "if she makes my nuts itch I kill that slut bitch". In a recent Hot 97 interview, Mase claimed to have (check out this euphemism) disrespected over one thousand women in his heyday as a bad boy. Now he singsongs hooks about being in love with a girl from Mississippi named Twyla (his real-life wifey, with whom he just had a baby) and instructs girls in Melrose who love Chanel clothes to keep they legs closed. I'll note that the tension that made Mase's early songs so captivating is gone. Mind you, I'm not saying the dude has to be morally reprehensible to achieve his Apollonian ideal. I'm just noting that the tension is gone, that's all.
True, there's cognitive dissonance to be found elsewhere in the album. Namely, Mason "Y'all do it y'all way, I'ma do it Yahweh" Betha likes his money -- loves it, in fact. "Blessed are the poor"? Playa please. Throughout Welcome Back, Mase leaps back and forth between bended-knees religiosity and spendin'-Gs pomposity, often in the same breath (to finish the above Yahweh-referencing couplet: "Forget the house, I put a million on the driveway"). During his aforementioned Hot 97 interview, he explained this apparent discrepancy: "Money is not of the devil. It depends on who's controlling it." Even if you don't completely buy this argument, it certainly elucidates where the minister is coming from when he raps, "I smell like money, let the odor stay / Go into my closet, fur to throw away".
Ultimately, though, the money/Maker friction is erased when you realize that for pop-friendly Mase, da game is to always to be sold, not to be told. Just ask fellow born-again George W. Bush. It's difficult to imagine G-Dub shaking ass to Harlem World, but he and his Halliburton posse somehow managed to create popular national support for a war for oil (the global economy's equivalent of bling-bling). Mase, meanwhile, has attempted to manufacture consent for his use of mainstream rap's "yay, materialism!" trope using slick hooks, melodic rapping, and G-rated lyrics. The race for thematic supremacy in Welcome Back goes something like this: populism in the lead, moralizing second, proselytizing a distant third. Mase the minister might bristle at this order. Mase the rapper laughs all the way to the bank.