The Conceptual Genius of Masta Ace - Part 1
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 of "conceptual" Hip-Hop.
As the new millennium approached, Ace was ready to hang up the microphone and focus on other aspects of the business. Had he done so, he could have rightfully rode off into the sunset on the strength of his material with the Juice Crew, and solo projects like Take a Look Around, SlaughtaHouse, and Sittin' on Chrome. Yet, his work on the compilation album, Game Over — featuring an upstart Eminem — and a successful European tour, reignited his creative juices. He had one more album in him in the same way a gunslinger has one more showdown to prove his grit.
It had been six years since his last album. His previous efforts had been meant to appease labels who were looking for singles. Masta Ace made projects. As a result, there was often a disconnect between the business, and the creative. The seedlings for what would become Disposable Arts would be for him and him only.
"That was the era of artists going in the studio recording 30-40 songs for an album and picking the best 12-14 to release — usually based more on the feature than how good the song was," Masta Ace said. "So many 'throw away' songs were being made. It was truly a time when music was becoming more 'disposable.; Going out to 78/88 Studios in Queens I found a haven for creativity and artistry. The combination of those factors put me in the right mindset to make this album."
According to Ace, he was 7-8 songs into recording the album when the narrative quality struck him. While most albums certainly have autobiographical aspects that provide a certain amount of connective tissue, Disposable Arts feels like something more thought out. It's his version of Christopher Nolan's Memento as told through two distinct narratives. We have the "Ace" character who is coming out of prison, and the actual Masta Ace who is something of an all-seeing orator. Together, we see Hip-Hop at a vantage point from both blueprint, and skyscraper. The dichotomy exists in the desire to join the rank and file flocking to Hip-Hop because it's lucrative, and his belief that he needs to hang up the mic because he can't deliver the shiny suits and R&B-laden hooks.
On Disposable, "prison" doubles as both an inciting incident, and a metaphor for the so-called "jail" Ace had been in on major labels. His release is liberating — but like with real criminals — there is often no structure in place to ward of recidivism. The time in between releasing albums is referenced in the clothing that Ace is receiving back. In a blink of an eye, we've gone from Timbs and baggie jeans, to the Puffy-fication of Hip-Hop. It's Hip-Hop's version of Brooks Hatlen getting out of Shawshank Prison.
The album cover itself is a nod to his Sitin' on Chrome past. In the Disposable Arts universe, success in the music business for many artists is slowly broken down like a boosted car until the only thing left is a place to pontificate on how it all went wrong.
"Hold U" is a clear example of Ace's brilliance. While the title would suggest he's referencing he and "Lisa's" love story, a closer examination reveals Ace is using the female archetype to express his love for Hip-Hop — specifically the microphone — in a similar way Common did on "I Used to Love H.E.R."
Never knew it would be so hard to be with you/I should make it easy on myself and just quit you.
On Disposable Arts, we're left with equal parts a break-up note, and a love note to Hip-Hop in its past and present (2001) form. Masta Ace looked in the mirror and asked the question, "Was it all actually worth it?" The answer is a resounding, "yes."