Long Hot Summer
A slept-on MC's career trajectory is simple: release some great, under-appreciated albums, become bitter, spend an entire album or two complaining about being ignored, then quietly disappear. Masta Ace, alumnus of rap's legendary Juice Crew (which included Marley Marl, MC Shan, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and Roxanne Shante among others), often had superstar status just within reach. But fans shrugged when he attempted to bridge the early- to mid-'90s divide between West Coast and East Coast rap during a time nobody wanted to play both sides. Still, when Ace released 2001's Disposable Arts after a six-year drought, his slick, bristling rhymes established him as the last Juice Crew member capable of staying vicious. Given the album's cynical state-of-the-game tone and its "I regret nothing" endnote, it could have made an expansive career summary and a moving coda.
Too bad he didn't end on a high note. Long Hot Summer is Ace's "official" retirement album: He's hanging up the mic to focus on behind-the-scenes business for his M3 record label. And as farewells go, it feels obligatory. Ostensibly built around a concept-album narrative--Ace struggles to survive as an MC, gets caught up in hustling, goes to jail, and gives up the ghost by the end of the album ("Rap's like tryin' to take a piss in the wind/I'm just glad to know that some of y'all were listenin' in")--the bulk of Ace's rhymes leave him sounding defeated, disillusioned, and worn out, preaching to the golden age fans who always felt he deserved better.
Ace has regressed into a halfhearted flow that feels strictly '89 and lyrical themes that play it safe too often: The game has changed, the labels have jerked me, but I'll show them. At times, he overreaches with gimmick rhymes, like the soft drink and laundry detergent wordplay on "Soda and Soap" (featuring Jean Grae, whose talents are wasted on an inert hook). And though the album utilizes 10 different international producers, including France's D.A.M.S. and Croatia's Koolade, the overarching vibes-and-harps approach proves that the urge to imitate Hi-Tek transcends borders. At least now we have closure on Masta Ace. He didn't go out on top, but at least he survived 16 years before bottoming out.