The long-awaited Pusha T full-length My Name Is My Name is now streaming, after several years sitting comfortably in the “Coming Soon” column. And one of the album’s highlights—if not its best song, point blank—is the The-Dream-produced “Let Me Love You.” It is first notable because it finds Pusha—whose recent output tends to prioritize #BARS delivered with seething intensity—slipping back into a laconic flow reminscient of earlier Clipse singles. That unflappable attitude is a refreshing throwback to more innocent times.
But more than a reference to earlier Clipse material, it was also a very obvious throwback to Ma$e’s Neptunes-produced “Lookin’ At Me,” to which it bears a striking resemblence.
In fact, Pusha’s louche flow on “Let Me Love You” sounds so much like Ma$e’s on “Lookin’ At Me” that we’re not entirely sure Ma$e didn’t sneak on for a quick sixteen. He has, after all, popped up in a few places lately. He had a standout verse on 2 Chainz’s recent underrated B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time, and earlier in the year, dropped some intricate bars on Young Scooter’s “Made It Through the Struggle.” This summer, Ma$e even reunited with Diddy for a performance at Drake’s OVO Fest—no doubt one of those ’90s fantasies Drake references on his new album.
But don’t call it a comeback. Ma$e’s presence in hip-hop goes beyond that. (After all, that happened in 2004, and there are only so many ‘comebacks’ one can get away with.) It’s got a lot more to do with his broader influence. This comes up in all kinds of obvious ways, like Pusha’s homage “Let Me Love You,” or Drake’s “Worst Behavior” verse that snaps up a gang of the Harlem MC’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” bars. Or last year, when Kanye West’s “Cold” swiped the opening lines from “Lookin’ At Me.”
[vsw id=”gUhRKVIjJtw” source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]
Ma$e’s style was not precise, intricate, nor aggressive. So what was it?
But Ma$e has had a more subtle, more significant impact than even those high-profile examples suggest. What exactly is it about Ma$e’s rap style that so captures the ears of subsequent generations of rappers? At the time of his emergence, Ma$e’s music was divisive [Our editor, Dave Bry, still disapproves]. After all, this was the era of “jiggy” hip-hop, when shiny suits and disco loops were the initial salvo in what became the moment of the genre’s mass-market crossover success.
While it’s easy now to dismiss the critics as clueless fun-haters who didn’t understand why hip-hop made for great club music [Ed. note—you’re fired], there’s a more complicated history. Tangled up in the controversy over “jiggy” were questions about race, and what it meant to perform for the genre’s ever-growing caucasian audience. At the time, certain rap styles were more in vogue among critics and heads than others; think Biggie’s swaggering precision, or Nas’s Kool G Rap-derived verbal density, or Ice Cube and Chuck D’s confrontational bombast. Attempts to make that stuff work in the club were less than successful, although often entertaining anyway.
Ma$e’s style was not precise, intricate, nor aggressive. So what was it? Take a listen, again, to “Lookin’ At Me.” The song is a master class in hip-hop nonchalance, of laconic, behind-the-beat style. Ma$e’s melodic approach has a laid-back meter that is deftly reflected by his lyrics, which revel in casual understatement: “Can’t a young man get money any more?” “I can’t get mad ’cause you look at me/Cause on the real, look at me,” “We was all at the Greek fest, it’s hot and sandy/I rent scooters, I’m with my family/Tank top, flip-flop, really nothin’ fancy.” It was music about stunting and hollering at the ladies, but Ma$e’s shrugging, self-effacing flow seems designed to make words like “stunting” and “hollering” sound woefully clumsy and gauche.
There’s an Italian word called “sprezzatura,” which editorial cartoonist Chan Lowe once described as a word like “panache,” in that it has no direct English translation. It means—at least, according to the Oxford English Dictionary—”studied carelessness.” William Safire rounded up a few other definitions in this article, like “Someone who can make the difficult look easy.” Or, contextually, “a certain nonchalance (sprezzatura) which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”
And his most obvious predecessor would have to be Slick Rick, whose influence had fallen out of fashion amongst heads, relative to your Rakims, Kool G Raps, Chuck D’s and Ice Cubes.
This could, of course, easily describe any rapper with a “cool” disposition, everyone from Nas to Snoop Dogg. There are some who seem like stronger candidates than others, both going backwards in time (Shock G, perhaps?) or forwards (regional stars like Yungstar and The Jacka come to mind). But more than your typical rapper, Ma$e’s effortless insouciance seems like a good fit for sprezzatura. And his most obvious predecessor in the sing-song sprezzatura style would have to be Slick Rick, whose influence had fallen out of fashion amongst heads, relative to your Rakims, Kool G Raps, Chuck D’s and Ice Cubes.
But before them all is Spoonie Gee, the laid-back grandfather of all slick-talking, nonchalant rap stars. And naturally, he, like Ma$e, was from Harlem. One of his landmark recordings was the Pumpkin-produced “Love Rap,” in which he spends nearly six minutes sweet-talking ladies with the kind of “Who, me?” sprezzatura that no doubt made him a very convincing paramour.
This lineage finds its most recent acolytes in a few different places. Perhaps the most literal Ma$e debt owed outside of Pusha T’s recent homage is newcomer Rockie Fresh’s MMG single “What Ya Used To” with Hit-Boy. I’ve had trouble getting into Rockie Fresh’s laconic monotone in the past, but with dynamic production like this—it should be noted that the drum programming seems to directly emulate the late ’90s style of Puffy’s Hitmen—his sleepy approach comes to life. Drake, of course, has been quoting Ma$e of late, but his rap style has none of the Harlem MC’s effortless, in-the-pocket rhythmic command. Nor are his lyrics full of sly, self-effacing understatement. Instead, Drake’s affection for Ma$e feels more like his similar appreciation for Dada or Aaliyah—a signifier of late-’90s cool.
However, as a synthesist of Wayne and Kanye’s late-’00s rap styles, he does point to an obvious reference point for Ma$e’s continued relevence. In 2004, when Kanye West was just beginning his quest to become one of the new millienium’s defining voices, ‘Ye listed his favorite rap artists for Rolling Stone. His top five was a fairly predictable list, including Biggie, Nas, Jay Z, and Eminem. But the No. 1 spot belonged to Ma$e. At the time, some thought it a contrarian position, or a nod to ‘Ye’s mentor D-Dot, who had produced for Ma$e as a member of The Hitmen.
But in retrospect, it’s easy to hear Ma$e’s humblebrag rap style as a direct progenitor to Kanye’s approach, especially in ‘Ye’s early career, when his style was so full of humor. “They used to tell me lighten up,” he rapped on the “Get By (Remix),” “Put some Ma$e in your voice.” While he delivers this line while dismissing naysayers, it’s hard not to see that putting some Ma$e in his voice was exactly what Kanye did. But while Ma$e, like Spoonie Gee, was sweet-talking the ladies, a young, headstrong Kanye West used that advice to sweet-talk the public. Self-effacing, candid, and funny, Kanye sidled his way onto the pop charts like his Bad Boy inspiration.
By David Drake