Ma$e’s ‘Harlem World’ Cemented Bad Boy Beyond the Era of Shine
In 1997, Bad Boy Records, and the New York City rap scene as a whole, was at a crossroads. The untimely death of the label's flagship artist, The Notorious B.I.G., in March 1997 left Bad Boy in a state of uncertainty, with many unsure of who would pick up the pieces and carry the torch moving forward. While Bad Boy's CEO, Puff Daddy, took matters into his own hands with the release of his multi-platinum debut album, No Way Out, which minted him as one of the biggest stars in music, it was understood that he couldn't hold down the fort alone. Being the home of an array of rap talent, including The LOX and Black Rob, Bad Boy was in need of someone to fill the void left by Biggie. And it looked like up-and-comer Ma$e would be the one to grab the baton. Prior to the death of The Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e was being groomed for stardom, but it wouldn't be until the release of his own album, Harlem World, in October 1997 that he would truly ascend to the pop rap throne. However, what many rap fans are unaware of is that if not for a string of improbable occurrences, Harlem World, and Ma$e as we know him, may never have seen the light of day.
Before the dollar sign became attached to his name, Mason Betha was known as Murda Mase, a member of Harlem rap collective Children Of The Corn, which included future rap legends Cam'ron and Big L. The group would create a strong buzz in the New York City underground rap scene, but would be disbanded after group member Bloodshed was killed in a car accident, leading Ma$e to accept a scholarship to the State University of New York at Purchase in Westchester, New York to play basketball. As fate would have it, Ma$e's twin sister, Stason, would introduce the Harlemite to Cudda Love, who just so happened to be the road-manger for The Notorious B.I.G., a connection that would prove invaluable to the aspiring spitter's career. Taking Ma$e under his wing, in 1996, Cudda Love would bring him down to Atlanta in hopes of securing a record deal with Jermaine Dupri's So So Def record label, which had shown a proven track record for breaking unknown artists and transforming them into platinum selling stars.
However, things would not go as planned, as Cudda and Ma$e would run into Puff Daddy, who was on the hunt for new rap talent, while en route to Jermaine Dupri's party at the Hard Rock Cafe. Impressed by Ma$e's aura, Puff had him audition in front of the crowd at the Hard Rock Cafe, a performance that would lead to a standing ovation, as well as a record deal with Bad Boy Records, which Ma$e would agree to once back in New York. Originally rhyming under the moniker Murda Mase, Puff would convince Ma$e to drop the 'Murda' from his name, thus signaling the rise of Ma$e, Bad Boy's resident playboy and smooth talker, a role that Ma$e was reluctant to take, but would ultimately relish. The first order of business in ingratiating Ma$e into the Bad Boy family was to generate a buzz around him, which was accomplished when Puff decided to feature him alongside The Notorious B.I.G. on the remix to 112's single "Only You," which would become one of the hottest rap songs of the latter half of 1996. The "Only You (Remix)" would draw notice for the stylish rapper with the laid-back drawl and million dollar smile; however, it would be the calm before the storm that was a barrage of appearances by Ma$e on some of the hottest rap and R&B records throughout late 1996 and early 1997.
Standout performances on singles from the likes of Brian McKnight ("You Should Be Mine (Don't Waste Your Time)") and Tasha Holiday ("Just the Way You Like It") would help break Ma$e into the market, but it would be his appearances on smash hits like "Can't Hold Me Down," "Mo Money Mo Problems" and "Been Around The World" that would cement Ma$e's status as the hottest rapper in the game prior to even releasing an official solo single of his own. Following the death of The Notorious B.I.G. and the success of Puff Daddy's No Way Out, it was all but understood that Ma$e would be the central focus of Bad Boy Records as the label looked to move past tragedy and begin a new chapter in Bad Boy's history, with his debut album, Harlem World, serving as the first page.
At the time of Harlem World's release, rap was embattled in a war between the grittier acts of NYC and their more ostentatious counterparts, the latter of which Bad Boy Records embodied. Known for flash and promoting a champagne and caviar style of living, Bad Boy Records had become synonymous with the commercial growth of rap, which some in the culture and on its fringes felt came at the expense of the art and spirit of hip-hop. And in the scope of New York City, Harlem, which had not produced a viable rap star with the potential to own the game, was primed for a new rap savior to put Harlem back on the map, making Ma$e Lenox Ave's answer to Jay-Z, Nas, and Big Pun, all of whom were from neighboring boroughs. All of these factors created the perfect storm for which Harlem World would arrive in during fall 1997.
Led by the single "Feel So Good," which peaked at No. 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 and was powered by a sample of Kool & the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging," Harlem World debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts with over 270,000 copies sold in its first week of release, making it one of the most successful debuts in rap history at that point in time. In tune with previous Bad Boy singles of its era, "Feel So Good" was a party-hearty jam that put a fresh twist on a recognizable classic song, and a safe pick for a single, however, Harlem World as a whole is wholly unique to any Bad Boy release. Whereas albums like Life After Death and No Way Out consisted of ominous undertones, Harlem World is celebratory in nature, with few bleak moments to speak for. However, for all of his upbeat charm, Ma$e's murderous tendencies seep in throughout Harlem World, particularly on the murky Nashiem Myrick & Carlos "6 July" Broady produced cut "Take What's Yours," which includes one of first high-profile guest appearances by DMX. "And I'm the newest member of the Bad Boy team/And I'mma bring this nigga Puff mad more C.R.E.A.M," Betha boasts, before vowing to "take 'em back where Biggie took 'em before," one of the few references to his predecessor on Harlem, the first Bad Boy release devoid of any contributions from The Notorious B.I.G.
When thinking of Ma$e, most conjure up thoughts of his leisurely flow and suave tendencies. however, his aggression is palpable throughout Harlem World. On the Busta Rhymes assisted standout "Niggaz Wanna Act," Ma$e acknowledges this himself, warning "Shock niggas who thought I was a pop nigga/You go against Mase you get your wig rocked nigga," amid additional idle threats. Similar sentiments are shared on "Will The Die 4 U?" and "Wanna Hurt Mas$e," the latter of which contains lines like "I was Murda for six years, seen no cream from it/Drop Murda off, Ma$e woke up at Teen Summit,"a sly reminder of Betha's hardcore roots. Before Harlem World, there was a clear distinction between the east coast and southern rap scenes, but Ma$e can also be credited with helping to bridge that gap with "The Player Way," his collaboration with Memphis legends 8 Ball & MJG.
The '90s was a golden era for posse cuts, and Bad Boy was known for delivering some of the more competitive battle royals of their time. "24 Hours. to Live", one of the more memorable selections from Harlem World, lands near the top of this list. Featuring fellow Bad Boy members The L.O.X. and Black Rob, as well as a scene-stealing appearance from DMX, "24 Hrs. to Live" finds each spitter giving a detailed account of how they would spend their last day on earth, complete with an epic backdrop courtesy of Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Nashiem Myrick, Carlos "6 July" Broady. Speaking of production, Harlem World also helped mark The Neptunes foray into the rap world, as their track "Lookin' at Me" would precede Noreaga's "Super Thug," which is considered by many to be their coming out party as boardsmen.
Two decades after its release, Ma$e and Harlem World's influence remain evident. Beyond the sales, four million of them in the U.S. alone, the album helped changed the game for east coast rappers in many ways. His flow helped pave the way for the likes of Fabolous and 50 Cent, two rappers who have found success and longevity and helped bridge the gap between the '90s and the new millennium. His flash and bravado is embedded in the DNA of Harlem, with acts like the Diplomats and A$AP Crew following tradition by exuding an aura that was larger than life. Prior to Harlem World's release, the New York rap scene was seen as ostentatious, but rugged and raw, however, Ma$e presented a template that went against the grain and has become the model for any soloist out of New York looking to appeal to the women, the Billboard charts and the streets. While other albums out of the Bad Boy catalog may have been better, you'd be hard pressed to find one that's more influential to rap as we know it today, one of the many reasons Harlem World remains an undisputed classic and one of the greatest albums of its time.
Watch Ma$e's Video for "Feels So Good":
Watch Ma$e's Video for "What You Want" feat. Total:
Watch Ma$e's Video for "24 Hrs To Live" With Black Rob, The LOX and DMX:
Watch Ma$e's Video for "Lookin' At Me":