Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Cuddly Toy

Mase's Harlem World (Bad Boy) is a hugely appealing, moderately disturbing piece of pop that has no more credibility with the keepers of hip hop's gated community than Calvin Butts, Al Roker, or the great neglected legacy of the Fat Boys. Twenty-year-old Mason Betha has performed better than anyone could have hoped when the murder of Biggie Smalls cost Puffy Combs his most valuable playa earlier this year. With his phlegmatic, just-woke-up drawl the known selling point of singles by 112, Mariah Carey, Brian McKnight, and the weak-rapping Puffy himself, as well as the key that opened Biggie's posthumous street-jam-of-the-year "Mo Money Mo Problems," Mase hit under his own name with the high-spirited "Feel So Good." Suddenly, he saw his debut album debut at No. 1, which was a given, and then maintain for a second week, which wasn't. But due to the continuing evolution of those two hip hop archetypes, the gangsta and the mack daddy, these achievements didn't guarantee the kind of respect every hip hopper craves.

Puffy himself is suspect, seen as "r&b" rather than "hip hop," even if his tradition-bearing loops have done far more to divert rap Benjamins back to NYC than RZA's sonic strata. Puffy's ticket to legitimacy was the well-publicized crack-dealing past of the Notorious B.I.G., a dry storyteller whose casually sardonic tone, fuck-me humor, and fascination with his own mortality redefined the defiant macho of early Ice-T and Ice Cube for a subculture weary of splitting the slim difference between sensational fantasy and violent reality. A talker not a declaimer, mocking r&b whenever he took up a tune and doubting his own juice with every muted grunt and moan, Biggie came across as a tough guy who could take care of his own yet had grown sick to death of the thug life. At just the right moment, he was a gangsta who didn't take much pride in being a gangsta. By contrast, Puffy's toughness seems a function of his management skills--he's a man who knows how to hire bodyguards. And Mase, who Puffy affectionately identified as "my little brother" when he showed off his intentional family at Madison Square Garden December 1, is a cute, sexy boy toy who knows somebody with a lot of bodyguards.

Typically for rap's self-mythologizing world, the biographical details are already a little murky. On the album Mase identifies his birthplace as Harlem, which fits the part of his image in which he returns props to the neighborhood where hip hop turned show business. But Bad Boy's bio says he was born in Jacksonville, moved north at five, was sent back south eight years later when he could no longer "avoid the lure of dangerous ghetto games," and came north for good two years after that. On the album, Mase depicts himself "standin' on the corner sellin' dope for dough." Yet he told Trent Fitzgerald in Beat-Down, "I was the guy who was to leave the neighborhood and become a NBA star and come back and save the neighborhood." Soon, he says, he was studying sociology at SUNY--on a basketball scholarship, he says, though he looks to be about five-nine--and rapping on the team bus.

And though hip hop hards don't want to hear it, rapping is something Mase has a gift for. Like Snoop Doggy Dogg without the killer cool, he earns the overused term "flow"--never in a hurry, slurring vowels and swallowing consonants, he has no trouble rhyming "my limo" and "sex symbol" and is at ease with both notions. His languid, congested timbre sounds goofy and utterly confident at the same time. On Puff Daddy's star-studded bill, only island-flava Busta Rhymes and perhaps the forthright Lil' Kim--never mind Jay-Z, an overrated technician on a par with, say, New Orleans soul pro Johnny Adams--approached his vocal originality. Of course, that's also to except Biggie, whose many taped appearances underscored how slyly his delivery combined hard and offhand--while Mase, too bad for his cred, beguilingly combines soft and offhand. He's the cuddliest rapper ever, an intrinsically unscary figure who actually told Spin's Sia Michel that he wanted to be the "black Barney." I can't attest to his rumored toddler appeal, but I have it from several firsthand authorities that schoolgirls love him, and even worse for the gatekeepers, school boys love him too. Ladies OK, you know how they are. But if Mase and Puff seduce the niggaz, who's gonna get paid for keeping it real? While Biggie's version of gangsta was just what the community ordered, Mase's version of mack daddy makes it want to fwow up.

Admittedly, the cheers he got from the very un-kiddie Garden crowd--which, "pop" or no, was also overwhelmingly African American--were relatively high-pitched. But the ladies won every make-some-noise contest all night; what's more telling in re Mase's cuddle factor is that many of these were X-rated. Especially for the openers, this was a big-time raunchfest, from Usher's practiced floor-humping to Jay-Z's ice-cool "Ladies grab my dick if you love hip hop" to Foxy Brown and her brother Pretty Boy's foul niggas-who-got-no-dicks/bitches-who-got-stink-pussy chants to Busta's well-relished, "underaged not allowed" envoi, highlighted by a convincing pantomime in which he finger-fucked his lady of the evening from the rear. Puffy's folks had lots of other ways to get the crowd going--"Shaft" opening and "We Are Family" close, "I'll Be Missing You" choir followed by a $3 million dollar check for Biggie's mom and kids, platinum records to not just perform but present, Puffy's trained dancing and outrageous preaching and improved rapping. But they couldn't resist reprising the openers' flip-the-bird wave and drop-trou shuffle. And that's leaving out Lil' Kim.

Yet if any of this bothered the ladies who were shrieking for Mase, that didn't stop them from shrieking some more. For this hip hop audience, cuddly and raunchy are anything but mutually exclusive. And with a parallel capacity for contradiction, Mase likes to believe the black Barney can get respect. Harlem World brims with revitalized hooks and sexy delights, some as sweet as the Billy Lawrence duet "Love U So," some as disenchanted as the Lil' Cease/Jay-Z confab "Cheat on You"; "24 Hrs. to Live," with his old LOX crew, is a devastating street conceit shouting doom and redemption. But the album protests too much about who's soft: "I shock niggaz/Who thought I was a pop nigga/You go against Mase you get your wig rocked, nigga," or: "A nigga smack me I'ma smack him back/If it lead to the guns then that be that." And like Biggie, only within a radically narrower compass of experience, Mase is tortured by fear and doubt: "Niggaz say they love me, they dont love me/I know deep down they wanna slug me/I feel the vibe when they hug me."

Rendered with Mase's unflappable indolence, these threats and forebodings take on an eerie pathos, but that doesn't mean they aren't also pathetic, not to mention pathological. And when you scratch the boy toy you find more weird shit; like most cunt hounds, Mase isn't always cuddly. In addition to "the four pimp rules," the "please no hickeys 'cause wifey's with me," the detailed list of freak-me requirements that climaxes with the sudden, brutal "If she make my nuts itch I kill that slut bitch," there's the throwaway boast on his high-spirited hit. "Never been arrested for nondomestic," he tells KISS-FM and MTV, certain that he's cool after all because he never got nabbed when he dealt dope for dough, only when he . . . what? I'm a little afraid to find out.

In part these bursts of misogyny are another species of boast, designed mainly to impress the boys on the block. Unfortunately, that doesn't guarantee they're lies. Cuddle plus raunch adds up to great sex, as I hope a few shriekers at the Garden knew firsthand. Cuddle plus abuse is just some serious psychological dissonance. As hip hop's first true boy toy, Mase radiates a physical charm that no Al or Teddy fan, male or female, should do without. But driven by his need for male acceptance and his fear of female power, he can't escape the safe, ugly confines of mack daddydom. That would take more strength, and more genius, than pop operators normally muster these days.

Village Voice, Dec. 16, 1997