Pete Tosiello hopes to be this good when he’s 50.
The onset of summer brings crippling guilt. You can three quarters of life waiting for three months of long daylight, sandals, and drinking on rooftops with bulbed lights deliberately strung overhead at haphazard angles — which makes more inexcusable when between Memorial Day and Labor Day I find myself eating like crap, oversleeping, watching baseball games on TV, reading books in parks with homeless people, and spending nights with a laptop on my legs until it overheats.
I should be falling in love, taking advantage of my propensity for seasonal Mediterranean coloring, exploring new getaways, and forming memories to sustain the next nine months I’ll spend waiting for another summer. I recall jogging before work in the frigid morning darkness of the February past, freezing my gonads off, and vowing, as I do every year, never to take mild weather for granted. These are regular assertions to make, I tell myself in moments of lucid self-assurance, but what’s more prescriptive than seasons, if not holidays?
Masta Ace, the rapper, is in varying doses bitter, ironic, critical, regretful, and guilt-ridden, and these are among the many reasons I like him. He has a convincing, compelling victim’s complex that doesn’t quite border on paranoia. Since his self-imposed exile from rap spanning 1995 through 2001, his music has been predicated on the notion that the world has passed him by. He’s like if Eeyore, Squidward, Toby Ziegler, or Peter Jernigan had watched all their friends go platinum in ‘95.
His new album The Falling Season occupies the same multiverse as 2001’s Disposable Arts and 2004’s A Long Hot Summer and is of a piece with 2012’s MA Doom: Son of Yvonne, a similarly fantastic record which was overlooked because it was reductively promoted as an MF Doom mashup. The former two are hypothetical, allowing for more sweeping takes on the devastated rap landscape, whereas the latest two are presented as autobiographical. If I’m making these sound like alternate Kool Keith or Ultimate Marvel dimensions, it’s not that complicated—Ace is always Ace.
Son of Yvonne and The Falling Season are in the abstract less ambitious than their predecessors, recounting Ace’s experiences growing up in Brownsville and at Sheepshead Bay High School. But where they succeed is in enunciating much of the despair that was palpable but not articulated on Disposable Arts and A Long Hot Summer. At their cores, the new albums are records about an only child in a single-parent household and a bad neighborhood, one looking fearfully at the world around him and burdened even as a kid with the feeling that he’s an outsider.
The Falling Season is, like the others, anchored by a handful of tracks with real weight glued together by skits and lighthearted collaborations. “Young Black Intelligent” is one of the finest singles of Ace’s long career and among the best tracks of 2016, replete with a righteous Chuck D monologue and live instrumentation by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. “All I wanna do is get a B in geometry / Lose my virginity, and live my life drama-free,” Ace rhymes. “Mr. Bus Driver” is infectious and unnerving. Strick, another under appreciated sad sack who’s been recording with Ace for going on two decades, shows up for the uncharacteristically effervescent “Juanita Estefan”
The place-setters on the tracklist deftly create a sense of place without reliance upon obvious touchstones. It’s identifiably 1980s New York, but more importantly it’s high school—a universal experience yet one hard to succinctly define. Without reference to Koch, Ewing, Gooden, crack, or Wall Street, it’s a focused and intimate affair without any grandiloquent statements.
Ace’s Brooklyn is neither glorified for its quaintness nor for its brutality. He sits at bus stops, counts clouds, and watches people on public transportation. Where most nostalgic renderings of high school focus on parties and puppy love, the overriding sentiment of The Falling Season is one of uncertainty. Idle hands, as it were, are the devil’s playground.
The stakes are a little higher on The Falling Season than on Son of Yvonne. Riding ninety minutes each way from Brownsville to Sheepshead Bay, Ace is paralyzed by fear that his grandmother won’t make it home from the grocery store. He’s scared of territorial Jewish and Italian kids as much as he was of his own neighborhood’s chatty corner store burnouts on the last album. Sheepshead Bay might as well be the other side of the universe for Ace, and in the specialized, segmented New York City high school system, he arrives alone.
Like its predecessors, The Falling Season is self-aware and funny, which as usual makes the moments of despondency all the more stark and desperate. The happy-go-lucky dumping ground of Sheepshead Bay High is underscored by the fact that Ace is only there because his mother’s job in Atlanta fell through. The production, handled entirely by KIC Beats, is clean, bright, and musical. Once again the Greek chorus takes the form of Fats Belvedere, Ace’s impulsive Italian-American foil. The record’s ultimate poignancy is that the listener knows the wary, wide-eyed narrator grows up to be Masta Ace.
Ace turns 50 this year, and if this is the best rap album assembled by a half-centurion, it’s all the more impressive because it so effectively renders adolescence. The Falling Season captures the essence of high school—and life, really—in its affirmation that the bulk of it is spent waiting for other stuff to happen.