Pete Tosiello first gave Porzingis the idea to get cornrows.
Buy the reissue of Long Hot Summer here.
There’s a certain demographic of New York and Boston rappers who consider themselves pioneers. Depending on your perspective, they either embraced or were consumed by bitterness in their late thirties. The result was often rambling records that decried the ills of auto-tune and skinny jeans — ones that expressed genuine disbelief that, in middle age and decades past their respective heydays, they weren’t A-list celebrities.
J-Zone will never get over the fact that his admittedly estimable talent as a rapper and producer didn’t make him a millionaire [ed. note: J-Zone should be a millionaire]. Large Professor, Sadat X, and Edo.G are all anxiously defensive about the passage of time, befuddled by a generation of hashtags and swag rap they either directly or indirectly influenced. After 2006’s reflux-inducing Operation: Take Hip Hop Back, Craig G recorded a vaguely self-aware follow-up actually called Ramblings of an Angry Old Man in 2012. KRS-One is a tragic, rankled shadow of his former self; Big Shug and Lord Jamar are delusional bigots for whom enough props could never exist to satisfy and, thanks to fortunate associations with talented friends, were probably lucky to make their livings as rappers in the first place.
I’m not sure if this accusatory vengefulness is solely endemic to rap artists or is instead symptomatic of the more general disappointment and restlessness of middle age. But among this Elks Lodge of has-beens and never-weres, the only one who depicted his midlife crisis in a charming, relatable, and fascinating manner was Masta Ace.
His late career opuses, 2001’s Disposable Arts and its prequel, 2004’s A Long Hot Summer, were both reissued last week. Both are concept albums following a narrative structure, but beneath their humor and outsized characters they’re about the desolation of a man who’s devoted his life to being a legendary rapper and doesn’t have much to show for it. The former’s title alludes to Ace’s character’s discovery that, for all his agonizing over his music and the dejection wrought by his critical successes and commercial flops, his art is ultimately, and utterly, disposable.
You have to sympathize with Ace — not least because of undeniable disparity between his resume and the consistently limited stature he’s had over nearly three decades recording. He and Craig G are the MC Ren and DJ Yella of the Juice Crew. Ace was also one-third of the original Crooklyn Dodgers, giving him the borough rap equivalent of membership to both the Dream Team and Dream Team II. His 1990 debut, Take a Look Around was produced entirely by Marley Marl and Mister Cee.
Even as a young rapper Ace wallowed in irony. He played both characters on the parodic “Me and the Biz” from his debut when Biz Markie failed to show for a recording session. His first concept record, 1993’s Slaughtahouse, was a satirical indictment of West Coast rap’s cartoonish violence. His best-selling album, 1995’s Sittin’ On Chrome, was released by Delicious Vinyl and bore a heavy g-funk influence, a style he adopted slightly sardonically.
Rather than capitalize on Sittin’ On Chrome’s success, his group The I.N.C. disbanded and a disillusioned Ace disappeared for the six years separating their last album and Disposable Arts. The Ace who resurfaced in 2001 was one of the most vulnerable and self-effacing figures rap had seen to that date. The album cover finds a brooding Ace perched upon a car seat left on a sidewalk, ostensibly one from the Sittin’ on Chrome cover’s lavish SUV.
On Disposable Arts, Ace’s character is paroled and rejects the street life, enrolling at a rural university bestowing degrees in rapping, DJ-ing, breakdancing, beatboxing, and graffiti. While the often hilarious skits keep the heady parable rolling, the album’s back nine is an immensely poignant half hour of introspection during which Ace surveys the uselessness of his profession and ultimately pledges to retire.
Despite the overarching gloom, Disposable Arts is funny and forthright, featuring a fantastic array of collaborations and perhaps the best single of his career, the Spanky and Our Gang-sampling “Take a Walk,” a tongue-in-cheek criticism of ghetto fabulous glamor. Yet in an emerging theme for our hero, the album was doomed when his label JCOR Entertainment collapsed in a financial scandal. It was quickly out of print.
Like many an MC before and after him, Ace reneged on his retirement promise and returned in 2004 with A Long Hot Summer, which recounts how the narrator of Disposable Arts wound up in jail in the first place. Released on Ace’s own M3 Records, the structure is virtually identical to its predecessor, opening with its most upbeat material before the plot kicks into gear and closes with a suite of self-scrutiny.
Fats Belvedere, a small-time crook and Michael Rapaport dead ringer, tags along on tour with Ace to geographically expand his hustle. Eventually they get caught. Between the songs and skits, the setting (predominately Brooklyn) is rich and vividly sketched. While the diverse tracklist features convincing love songs, collaborations, and monologues that stand on its own, it’s a disservice to hear them out of context. “Beautiful” is a stunning composition by a Croatian producer named Koolade, and Ace’s valiant attempt to enumerate the positive things in his life is equally heart breaking. On the D.R. Period-produced “F.A.Y.” Ace and guest Strick lash out at everyone in their lives—neighbors, girlfriends, business associates—but in the end find that they’re mostly frustrated with themselves:
I got a dark that don’t bark, a cat that don’t meow
Everybody else is rich and I don’t fucking see how
Sometimes I wonder why even bother waking up
I should just end it, give back the spot I’m taking up
Ace is among the most conversational of rappers and rarely resorts to complex rhyme schemes. His ambition is mostly restricted to lyrics rather than technique. The Jean Grae duet “Soda & Soap” is a brilliantly executed concept song with a lush beat by DJ Spinna, and the Big Noyd collaboration “Do It Man” is awesome because it’s a Masta Ace-Big Noyd collaboration.
“Brooklyn Masala” is probably the strongest love song Ace ever pulled off and the Edo.G feature “Wutuwakno” is a third act highlight, but the linchpin is the closer “Revelations.” Over a sparse guitar-based track, Ace despairs:
Something’s wrong with y’all, ain’t nothin’ wrong with me
And happy in my life is what I long to be
And happy in my life is what I’m gonna be
What you see in me is what I was born to be
From the day that my moms first birthed a child
She didn’t need the world to make it worth the while
So I don’t need no magazine to reach the pinnacle
Screw a review, and you can eat the interview
‘Cause that’s what y’all seem to tend to do
Them cats you cover all seem identical
Through it all I weave like the Parkers’ hair
And shine underground ‘cause it’s darkest there
A Long Hot Summer hurts because despite the jadedness of its creator, it’s teeming with passion. For all his misery, Ace has a vivid, desperate love of life and hip hop, even if he feels they’ve done him wrong. He’s here to chronicle his despair, but first, enjoy some witty punchlines and a Beatnuts collabo.
Listening to the new reissue from Below Systems Records, which includes two solid if irrelevant bonus tracks, I can’t help but hear Frederick Exley, the late author of A Fan’s Notes. Ace knows he’s a genius, but also knows that his genius is the self-destructive source of his depression, and like Exley is driven by an Ahab-esque obsession to commit his genius to a devastating work of embellished autobiography. It’s often said of the increasingly popular “failure memoirs” like A Fan’s Notes that the author’s suffering is the reader’s gain. Like an addict, Ace knows rap isn’t good for him, but he can’t leave it alone because he is, after all, a rapper. His fiercest desires are acceptance and corroboration of his life’s work.
Atmosphere, Z-Ro, Tyler, the Creator, Tech N9ne, and Has-Lo primarily derive their unhappiness from their personal lives: relationships, adolescent trauma, and struggles with confidence and self-consciousness. In terms of his music and his personality Ace is confident to a fault, so his insecurity is a result of the world’s failure to recognize it or agree with his self-assessment. He’s haunted by the notion that he could so easily have been a star if only he’d signed with different labels, worked with different artists, or churned out carbon copies of Sittin’ On Chrome through the 1990s.
That said, A Long Hot Summer is mostly upbeat—it even includes an outtakes reel. But its effect is heartbreaking: the declaration of a man so convinced of his talent, an artist so certain of his body of work, and an innovator so assured of his contributions who, over a life in rap, became his own worst enemy, never getting his shot at the big time or finding the appropriate vehicle to share his art.
“Rap’s like trying to take a piss in the wind,” Ace shrugs in the closing bars of “Revelations.” “I’m just glad to know that some of y’all were listenin’ in.”