Happy 15th Anniversary to Mase’s third studio album Welcome Back, originally released August 24, 2004.
One of the major surprises of 2004 was the re-emergence of Mason Betha, when he returned to hip-hop with the single “Welcome Back” and its accompanying video. Mase had taken a five-year sabbatical from the rap game, which seemed like an eternity in the early 2000s.
His departure was one of the dramatic moments of 1999, when he gave what seemed like an impromptu interview to Funkmaster Flex, expressing his religious conversion. Mase was so hot at the time that his sophomore LP Double Up still earned a double platinum plaque even with hardly any promotion or a follow-up single to “Get Ready.” Obscured from most fanfare, Mase would return to school, relocate to Atlanta, and eventually become a Christian pastor, with a few random videos surfacing on the internet in the very early stages of websites like YouTube.
For those of us who at least loosely followed Mase during his musical hiatus, we accepted that the former prince of the Bad Boy empire would never return to hip-hop. At least that was Mase’s sentiments from his sermons and autobiographical book Revelations: There’s a Light After the Lime released in 2001. Pastor Mason was very direct about the negative influences he perceived as dominating the music industry, particularly hip-hop. That’s why even for some of his most enduring fans, after the initial excitement of his return wore off, some questions lingered.
But before that much thought was applied to Mase’s return, it was a pleasant surprise, to say the least, to see him appear in a Harlem brownstone with the caption “Mister Betha’s Neighborhood” and switch from a tie and sport coat to a yellow Polo shirt with matching custom Air Force 1’s a.k.a. “Uptown Nikes” for the “Welcome Back” video. The former hitmaker and trendsetter was back with his signature look and flow that once put him on top of the rap world. Mase’s image was overhauled with the subtraction of his ‘I’ll steal your girl” persona with what he was now marketing as a Bad Boy gone clean, which he expressed with the radio friendly lyrics, “See I rep the most high/ still I'm the most fly /win so much, they wanna know who I'm coached by /everyday approached by chicks when I was on top / wanna give me sosa, but I'm like don't try.”
Mase’s return originally seemed perfect for the time as Bad Boy Records was beginning to fade from the spotlight with the Southern takeover of rap sales, coupled with the resurgence of Harlem as the prominent New York City rap borough thanks to Mase’s former childhood friend and rap associate Cam’ron and his Dip Set collective. A combination of the two factors served as great enhancement for the entertainment value of the summer, as Cam’ron and his musical protégé Jim Jones helped create one of the memorable live disputes of hip-hop by calling into Hot 97 to confront some of their past issues and provide their perspective to Mase’s real reason for departing hip-hop in 1999. Mase came off as the grownup during the exchange which possibly helped promote his new image of maturity.
The other interesting aspect of the return was the rekindling of one of rap’s most decorated duos, which was in full stride by Welcome Back’s second single “Breathe, Stretch, Shake.” The uptempo song produced by Bay Area mainstay Rick Rock came off as a fight anthem with Mase as the former champion returning as a top contender and Diddy as the motivating ring manager. Charting on Billboard’s Hot 100 helped lead the album to success as it would go on to sell over 500,000 copies.
Mase would remain one of the more relevant conversational topics in hip-hop throughout 2004 and into ’05. Making guest spots on the “Lean Back” and “Jesus Walks” remixes. The latter landing as one of Mase’s best verses, overshadowing most of the Welcome Back LP with in-depth lyricism like the bars, “They deceived us, having thinking Jesus, really didn't need us, when He loved the old days / He loved them boys in the hallway up in Broadway / Even those who re up for dope, every four days / To the strippers in broad day up in Norway / to the Detroit player gators in Marbres / with me, it's not just bars of music / I walk with God, I got the scars to prove it.”
With just around 16 bars, Mase answered questions of his departure and return to hip-hop and showed the possibilities of what could have been achieved artistically with a more personal, Mason Betha album. Welcome Back has religious overtones, but ultimately lands in the bubblegum category, many of the songs would go on to be paired with the Fat Albert film starring Kenan Thompson released on Christmas day that same year.
Mase remains one of the more intriguing personalities in the entire world of hip-hop to me. Invoke his name in a barbershop debate or social media discussion and its sure to extract strong emotions. Love him or hate him, but he is one of the masters of capturing the attention of my generation, and his unexpected return in the summer of 2004 is a clear example of his seemingly undying star-power.