Kind of Red

December 20, 2009

Ever Since Ma$e Came Back . . .

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 6:10 pm

“I was really about to find God/But ever since Ma$e came back, I’d much rather find a ménage . . .”

-Fat Joe, Lean Back

With the sluggishly mumbled lines, “You can hum all you want to/Come all you want to . . .”  Mason Durrell Betha, or simply Ma$e, as the world would later come to know him, introduced himself to the world of rap.  His ascent was an unlikely one; born in Jacksonville, Florida and raised in Harlem, New York, Ma$e first seemed poised to excel in basketball.  He received a basketball scholarship to State University of New York, but he discontinued his studies to pursue music right as his basketball career was beginning to gain legs.  Rhyming under the moniker, “Murder Mase,” he joined rappers Cam’Ron, McGruff, Bloodshed and Big L to form the fledgling group Children of the Corn.  The group never saw the full measure of its potential, as the members splintered off following the sudden death of one its members.  After Children of the Corn disbanded, Murder Mase continued his pursuit of his music in earnest.  He flew to Atlanta in 1996 so he could meet Jermaine Dupri.  He met Sean “Puffy” Combs instead, rapped for him, and after a quick name change (from “Murder Mase” to “Ma$e”) he was on television screens across the country.

With his serviceable verse in the remix of 112’s hit single Only You, Ma$e became emblematic of the lackluster rapper aspiring for platinum treasure in the era of shiny suits, gleaming rims and seemingly endless supplies of “bling.”  Much to the chagrin of his critics, he found platinum treasure indeed.  Thrust upon the market with a ringing endorsement from his label, then urban music powerhouse Bad Boy Entertainment, Ma$e would soon become a certified bankable star in the world of urban music.  In rapid succession, he released a string of hits of his own, including: Lookin’ at Me feat. Puff Daddy, Feel So Good, What You Want feat. Total and 24 Hours to Live feat. The LOX, DMX and Black Rob.  His debut album, Harlem World, released Tuesday October 28, 1997, subsequently went on to sell more than four million albums.

He followed his multi-platinum debut two years later with the aptly titled album, Double Up. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would remain a formidable name dominating airwaves across the country for some time.  He quickly set across the country to promote his newest offering,  and then came his abrupt announcement.  He was retiring from rap to pursue God.  As he would go on to say in interviews, he had grown tired of waking from his drunken stupor each morning lying next to some ravishing inamorata he did not know the name of.  In short, casually sleeping with random supermodel types had gotten old, and he needed God to fill the hole in his soul.

It was one such supermodel type who helped him take hold of that revelation.  She encouraged him to accompany her to church the morning after they shared a night together.  He reluctantly agreed, attended the service and later found himself knelt at the altar midway through the service having a vision of himself leading people to hell. The pastor of the church prayed for him, and prophesied Ma$e would “never rap for the devil again.”  Ma$e made his announcement the next day—April 5, 1999.  He told a New York radio host that he had found the Lord and would leave the game for good.  The announcement was jolting, particularly to his millions of fans who had just grown accustomed to singing the new material, such as, Get Ready feat. Blackstreet and All I Ever Wanted.   The announcement was also jolting to his mentor and label head, Sean “Puffy” Combs.   Ma$e still held contractual obligations to Bad Boy, particularly after it agreed to create an imprint on the label for Ma$e not too long before the announcement.  Nevertheless, label head, Sean Combs, would not stand in the way of Ma$e and his newfound faith.  Bad Boy would continue forth with the release of the album, but would not require Ma$e to promote it.  RIAA eventually certified platinum status of Double Up, but it inevitably seemed like the end of an era.

Ma$e subsequently moved to Atlanta, enrolled at Clark Atlanta University, and eventually earned an honorary Ph.D. in theology from St. Paul’s Bible Institute in 2002.   He later founded the S.A.N.E. Church International, Mason Betha Ministries and El Elyon International Church, changing names once again from Ma$e to Pastor Betha.  Though he stewarded his faithful flock for several years, he attempted a return to rapping in August of 2004 with the release of the innocuous album entitled, Welcome Back.  The return received mixed results, though not the type of impact he presumably desired.  The album also raised questions across the industry and bewildered many of its listeners.  Simply put, many people could not readily discern the full extent of Ma$e’s intentions.  Was Ma$e dissatisfied with his lot as a “forgotten” preacher?  Was his new content truly Christian or was it simply the clean bravado of a once fabled rapper?   Regardless of the questions it drew, the new material also prompted sharp criticism such as Fat Joe’s line from Lean Back.  People began to question the sincerity of his faith and the depths of his content. Pastor Betha did not remain in the public eye long enough to answer many of the questions, and continued building the foundation of his ministries.

He attempted a second comeback to rap two years later, where he teamed with G-Unit and sought to regain his formerly more rugged persona.  The G-Unit release, a mixtape entitled, Crucified 4 da Hood: Ten Years of Hate, saw the pastor release notably more questionable content and garner sharper criticism.   With lines alluding to leaving people in puddles of blood and other lines that referred to R&B singer/songwriter Brandy as a “ho,” Ma$e appeared to be a rapping paradox.  Obviously listeners were left more confused than they were with the last recording.  The questions became more frequent, and the clamor grew louder.  Much was made about the legal wrangling regarding Ma$e’s contractual obligations to Bad Boy, along with allegations of poor marketing and the like, but the one thing remained unquestioned; the mixtape floundered by Ma$e’s former commercial standards, and he was left pondering his next move.

Since the release of the ill-fated mixtape, Crucified 4 da Hood, Ma$e has gained his freedom from his obligations to Bad Boy.  He is now planning a third comeback, with the simultaneous release of five mixtapes, and presumably an official album to follow.  As with the other comebacks, this one is met with its share of skepticism.  This time, one of Ma$e’s most ardent critics is one of  his former church members, who seeks to expose the rapper turned pastor turned rapper as a false prophet merely seeking profit.  In an exclusive interview with Hip-HopWired.com, the former church member is quoted as making accusations such as,”It became a hustle for Ma$e after a while dog… where he was gauging who he would talk to based around how much they were giving, that’s a problem for me.”  The former member added, “Ma$e, he owe the church an apology . . . He can’t do music and the church because he start messing up when he does both.” These reports have yet to be substantiated, but they give voice to whispered critiques and exemplify beliefs many hold.  They also embody the influence of his work.  Ma$e’s ill-fated return had, and continues to have, a greater impact than its poor album sales would suggest, because it evokes more questions regarding the validity of his faith, and the validity of the faith as a whole.

His newly released material, the five mixtapes, have the potential to dramatically shape and reshape Ma$e’s future similarly to those lines he mumbled a little more than thirteen years ago in the Only You remix.  At this point in his career, Ma$e is not the wide-eyed novice who graced our television screens in 1996; he is an experienced star whose catalog has sold more than five million records.  He is also a pastor.  Regardless of whether these mixtapes catapult him back into relevance and allow him to regain his former stardom, this music has a more important impact than all the music he released previously, with the exception of Welcome BackWelcome Back arguably represented the most important release of Ma$e’s career because it was the first to follow his abrupt retirement.  In theory, he could have showed the world what the faith looked and sounded like.  This release has potential to do the same, because it will again allow him to tell the world where he stands in his own words.  He can no longer claim his former contractual obligations have stifled his progress, nor can he say he did not know what others would think of his return with objectionable material.  If he returns to the rugged persona that threatened to leave critics in puddles of blood or denigrates women, it will validate the questions that have circled him for years, and make him appear as nothing more than another washed-up rapper looking for the last glimmer of the spotlight.

Ma$e had an extraordinary opportunity to continue his representation of his faith at the time of his first retirement, despite widespread suggestions to the contrary circulating at the time, because the size of his audience.  He literally captured the attention of millions when he announced his retirement a decade ago.  With the influence he wielded, he could have dramatically demonstrated what it meant “to become new” in Christ, and thereby encourage others to follow his example.  He could have been like the two fishermen, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew, who dropped their nets to become “fishers of men.” Instead he chose to hold onto his net, and cast it into the sea of wistful ambition in hopes of catching bygone glory.  That  ambition made his material more dangerous than when he previously sold millions of records “rapping for the devil.”  The former material could be attributed to youthful recklessness.  The latter was an assault on the faith in its glaring contradictions.  Now that he has publicly claimed the faith, and begun to lead others in theirs, he has greater responsibility than the average artist who thanks God at an award show for blessing the artist to peddle filthy content and win critical acclaim.  Now he must give an account for the example he leads more than he did with the release of Harlem World and Double Up.  Let us hope and pray that this time when he mumbles his rhymes, he has something more to say than when we saw him last.

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