The Conceptual Genius of Masta Ace - Part 2
By Alec Banks
Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city is a modern example of an album that embodies non-linear storytelling which results in a cinematic and compelling body of work. From the first track to the conclusion, we see the ups and downs as he transitions from "K.Dot" to Kendrick Lamar — navigating through every triumph and tragedy.
Of course, conceptual works like good kid owe a lot to previous classic concept albums like The Roots' undun, Little Brothers The Minstrel Show, Del's Deltron 3030, Prince Paul's A Prince Amongst Thieves, and De La Soul's De La Soul is Dead.
While a lot of Hip-Hop fans use "first" as the organizing principal when examining the impact of certain sub-sects of the genre, it's perhaps more accurate to examine "consistency." As a result, Masta Ace is the unquestioned king.
For part 1, head here.
The term "prequel" is usually reserved for the world of cinema. Films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, The Godfather II, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom all come to mind.
Ace's previous effort before A Long Hot Summer, Disposable Arts, revealed a narrative in which Ace is coming out of prison, and seeing just how different the world he's entering really is. His heroes journey can now finally begin. A Long Hot Summer exists to fill in the details before the prison bars clattered.
It seems quite appropriate that the album begins with James Browns' iconic refrain, "Down and Out in New York City" because this is a decidedly Big Apple-centric story. However, this actual serves as the ending of the story. As Ace explains — over a jazzy background which evokes feelings of A Bronx Tale — it all began several months earlier in Brooklyn. Ace brings us into the world with a voice over which evokes feelings of Goodfellas.
For those who may only know Ace for Sittin' on Chrome or "The Symphony," the Brownsville native has real knack for transporting listeners into a fictionalized universe that is littered with autobiographical easter eggs.
First and foremost, Ace considers himself a tried and true storyteller at heart. When we speak for nearly an hour, he hardly ever mentions the word MC. In fact, he speaks in much more vivid terms about when he first picked up the pen, as opposed to the microphone.
"When I was in 7th grade, there were these state-wide, standardized tests," Ace begins. "On one of the exercises, they gave us a bank of words — say 25 words — and they said, 'Use all 25 words and make a story.' I had so much fun writing this story from my imagination. Each word help me to take the story someplace else."
Ace didn't give much thought to the exercise after a month passed until a classmate inquired about the results. His teacher — who was part of the state-wide testing process — began speaking about one paper in particular. Since the tests were left nameless, she had no idea who had written it.
"She said, 'There was this one story that just had all the teachers crowding around. It was so imaginative,'" Ace recalls. "She was talking about my story. It gave me confidence as a storyteller and as a writer. I never revealed that it was my paper — possibly because — growing up in Brownsville, there was always this sense of not wanting people to think you were too smart because maybe that meant that you could be taken advantage of. But still, I felt like, 'Wow.' And it still had nothing to do with Hip-Hop. That wasn't even a thing yet."
This idea of "hamstringing" oneself during the creative process evokes memories of the track "Soda and Soap" which was originally written for Will Smith, and the point of view track "Hold U" which finds Ace and Jean Grae taking on the perspective of an actual microphone.
"She was blessed, in an orange crushed velvet dress..."
"You're limited to a certain framework, and then you have to create a song based on this framework and stay within it and stay on task," Ace describes. "For me, it's a fun challenge. To me, that's where I'm at my best. Writing a braggadocios 16, that's almost boring for me now. I don't get anything out of that. I know it's a necessary part of the culture — and you got to be prepared with a rhyme like that — but, if I didn't write another braggy rhyme ever, I'd be okay."
Admittedly, asking Masta Ace where his creativity comes from is like asking a Michelin-star restaurant chef about his God-like palette. Yet, I find myself continually fascinated about his process. He admits that he enjoys how people can continue to find certain "easter eggs" as they dive deeper into the material. I myself, never even realized that the "Fats" character on ALHS asks Ace to get him some Tide before we go into "Soda and Soap." And then one day, it wafted over me like fresh hung laundry.
"I often ask myself the same thing, like, 'Wow, where did that come from? How did I think of that? What brought that?' I just feel like I've come to conclusion that it's something that's bigger than me, that I'm being directed and guided by a higher power or by a higher force that gives me this inspiration, ideas, thoughts, and directions. I hear it, I listen to it, and then I go and pursue it. Because that's the only thing I can think of, because in my normal, everyday, conscious self, I wouldn't think of these things. It wouldn't just pop into my head, 'Hey, let's a write a song about... you choose soda brands and soap brands and write a song about it.' It just never would occur to me to do that. So I can only attest it to or attribute it to something bigger than myself."
I like putting stuff in my music and in my albums that goes over some people's heads. And then other people that are more in tune, they get it...even years later.
Ace recognizes that his fans fall into two different classes: those that are just discovering his music, and those — like myself — who have been attempting to squeeze out every last drop from each project. He recommends that his work should be consumed chronologically: Disposable Arts, Long Hot Summer, Son of Yvonne, The Falling Season.
"Those four albums most clearly illustrate to the listener who I am from birth to present day," he says.
Today, Ace is working tirelessly on a musical that seems to be a culmination of the aforementioned albums. However, its further challenging as a story teller... which is exactly what he likes about it.
"When you're writing a musical, you have to stay within the storyline," he says. You can't put lines in there that have nothing to do with anything. Everything has to be there for a purpose."