Happy 20th Anniversary to Mase’s debut album Harlem World, originally released October 28, 1997.
No one admits to being a hater. But behind closed doors or under our breath, not many are saintly enough to have never uttered a jealous sentiment or rolled their eyes at someone who we’ve perceived to be a young, good-looking, born-with-a-silver-spoon person with an endless amount of star quality. Men, in particular, try to dismiss the notion and pass it off as a feminine emotion. But if you invoke the name Mase in a room full of ‘80s babies, watch as at least one face cringes when recalling the dimpled rapper who danced his way up the charts with a wardrobe of shiny suits.
Even twenty years later, it seems that many are happy to forget Mase’s conquest of the industry and erase that short chapter in the annals of hip-hop history. For those of us that were entrenched in the culture circa 1997, we remember that before rap went on a national tour, making stops in the Magnolia Projects of New Orleans, crossing 8 Mile Road into Detroit, the heir to the Bad Boy throne reigned as king of all New York with Harlem U.S.A as his home base.
In the wake of the hip-hop turf war that finally simmered after the culture had lost two of its most recognizable stars—Tupac Shakur and Mase’s musical mentor The Notorious B.I.G. —it seemed that the world of rap needed to be reminded that hip-hop, since its inception, was about rocking a party. Preparing for his solo debut, Sean “Puffy” Combs, who had the hot hand for hits and club bangers, unhinged his newest protégé as a major piece of his musical takeover. The wave of success that Comb’s Bad Boy Records rode into 1997 further solidified the entire label roster as a musical dynasty with the commercial success of the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumously released March 1997 album Life After Death and Puff Daddy & the Family’s No Way Out released that summer. Adding his schoolboy charm to hit singles on both albums, listeners became well acquainted with the slurred cadence of the Harlem bred playboy who became a frequent collaborator with B.I.G. before his untimely passing.
Following his 1996 debut feature on 112’s “Only You (Remix),” Mase played wingman for his boss Diddy on the rags to riches story “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” the inaugural single for No Way Out. The chemistry between the two was undeniable, and the lights of the big stage didn’t seem to faze the newcomer whose methodical swag controlled the tempo of what Combs would later describe as a musical experiment.
The slowed pace and smooth delivery of his braggadocious rhymes took listeners back in time to the street corners and pool halls of the ‘60ss and ‘70s when legends like Iceberg Slim and Rudy Ray Moore created Dolemite told tales of their allure with the ladies: “There's no guy slicker than this young fly nigga / Nickel-nine nigga / floss you die quicker / this fed time outta town pie flipper / turn Cristal into a crooked I sipper.” With this conversational style of game-spitting that was similar to the West Coast icon Too $hort, rap fans now had the opportunity to catch every syllable of the New York perspective. Although some wished they had missed the bars aimed at naysayers when Mase’s lyrics taunted his haters out of the room: “Could it be I move as smooth as Bugsy / or be at the bar with too much bubbly / yo I think it must be the girls want to lust me / or is it simply the girls just love me / brothers wanna rock the Rolls, rock my clothes /rock my ice, pull out glocks, stop my life.”
By the time “Mo Money, Mo Problems” was released as the second single from Life After Death, Mase had grabbed the attention of the entire music world. His comfort in rhyming alongside Diddy would have never led to speculation that he had been an early associate of the more grim Harlem rapper Big L, but as Mase would later explain, “I was Murda, P Diddy made me pretty / did it for the money, now can you get with me.” Once a member of a horrorcore group, Children of the Corn, along with neighbor and schoolmate Killa Cam (Cam’ron), Mase’s new persona adjusted considerably as he rhymed with ease over the radio-friendly production of Puff’s dream team of beat makers dubbed the Hitmen.
Owning the summer, Mase made the case that he was the valedictorian of Bad Boy’s graduating class of 1997, which included The Lox and Black Rob. As rap’s new golden boy, he expressed that exact sentiment on Mariah Carey’s “Honey (Remix)” where he boasted, “In fact, this is why I act like that / I ain't dropped one single and I made his money back / I rock so swell, I gotta prevail / first rap superstar dominating pop sales.” His cockiness only helped to incite loyalists of more tenured emcees that had payed dues in the rap game. Focused on carrying Bad Boy’s baton, Mase stepped to the forefront of a new generation of barely twenty-somethings who were primed to take hip-hop to an even larger audience as the new millennium approached.
Using one of the most culturally rich neighborhoods in the world as the backdrop of his biopic, Harlem World set the rap world ablaze with Bad Boy’s signature production and Mase’s simplistic rhyme style. A true artist of his time, Mase’s baby face and wavy hair made him the poster boy for the genre when hip-hop was at its visual apex. Having a video in constant rotation on MTV and BET had become just as—if not more—important than radio spins, and Mase always seemed camera ready.
Proving that he was indeed the heir to the Bad Boy throne and possibly the newest King of New York, Mase scored a commercial homerun from the opening bars of “Feel So Good,” Harlem World’s lead single: “Yo, what you know about goin' out head west / red Lex, TV's all up in the headrest / try and live it up, ride true, a bigger truck / piece all glittered up, stick up kid, nigga what.” At the start of 1998, Mase had duel hits dominating radio, Puff’s “Been Around the World” and his own sophomore single “What You Want” featuring his labelmates Total. Thematically, Harlem World largely focused on tales of an American gigolo who could take your girl without effort. Interestingly, the lines of artistry and reality would blur as the female love interest of the “What You Want” video would prompt a brief lyrical exchange between Mase and JAY-Z, as it was rumored that Mase wooed her away from a member in the Roc-A-Fella camp.
Balancing itself as a well-crafted project, Harlem World did step outside the bedroom to detail Mase’s roots growing up near 139th Street and Lenox Avenue. Busta Rhymes lent his famous adlibs to the Dame Grease and Young Lord produced “Niggaz Wanna Act” where Mase returned to his Murda Mase alter ego for edgier lyrics “Yo, I know niggas like you cuz I meet 'em all the time / and I greet 'em with the nine / if they ever keep what's mine / if I lose I get loc / put a fool in the yoke / two to his throat / take his jewels and his coat.”
The album also featured a noteworthy posse cut in “24 Hrs. to Live,” which featured the promising Bad Boy lineup of The Lox and Black Rob, along with an early career appearance by DMX. Another notable collaboration is “The Player Way,” which helped showcase the Memphis duo 8Ball & MJG to a northern audience well before the Dirty South takeover.
Looking back, Harlem World was a trendsetting album that fulfilled the expectations of its star of the moment. The album spun three hit singles, which helped it to sell over four million copies, a number that eclipsed practically everyone else in the hip-hop genre. It was so impactful that everyone who featured on it went on to have a successful career, including Kelis, The Neptunes, Kelly Price, and DMX. The album stood as the proclamation of rap’s definitive “it boy,” who fluently created rock star moments for hip-hop culture. While Ladies Loved Cool James, Mase was rap’s original heartthrob, the playboy that broke down the barrier of R&B divas and industry models openly dating rap stars. He preceded Usher Raymond, Justin Timberlake, and John Mayer as the industry’s most eligible bachelor, while wearing a stocking cap and Timberland boots.
Mase seemed to be the artist Puff had always looked for, to truly personify the Bad Boy image. The album also stood as Combs’ masterpiece as an executive, with its noticeable list of R&B appearances. However, the album is not a bubblegum long player. It earns its parental advisory sticker for violent content, as well as its sexual explicitness.
Hate all you want. If you were too hardcore for Harlem World back in 1997, your girl had it, and your favorite rapper studied it. When Mase bowed out of rap two years later to begin a spiritual journey, there was clearly a void left in the game that would be filled by Fabulous, Loon, and Kanye West, who has declared Mase as being his all-time favorite. Mase’s style even morphed into a country version, as his manager Cudda Love’s next find would be the midwest megastar Nelly. One could argue that Mase’s style is still evident within industry titans like Drake, which solidifies Harlem World as the blueprint for crossing over by appealing to the female listeners, who have always been one of the most reliable consumer demographics of hip-hop music.
Harlem World is not a lyrical expedition, and I don’t believe it aspired to be. But it’s an undeniably fun-filled album that helped show hip-hop how to simply have a good time. And there’s nothing wrong with that.