Even though rap dominates sales charts, radio and video play and has infiltrated the fashion and film industries, some hip-hop artists are less than pleased with the typically myopic, materialistic message of many chart-topping songs.
"I feel like the average hip-hop fan is not well-rounded at all," said Masta Ace, whose recently released Disposable Arts album makes keen, pointed observations about the current state of hip-hop. "Their musical diet is not a balanced one. It's a problem and it's unfortunate. There's nothing wrong with having some fun on a given night I have fun like the next man. But it needs to be about more than that at the end of the day, but unfortunately not enough of our people have figured that out yet. My job in this is to be one of the providers of balance."
Indeed, the follow-up to 1995's Sittin' on Chrome exhibits the balance that such hip-hop acts as KRS-One, Outkast, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Mystic and the Coup provide. Disposable Arts contains several interwoven storylines that include one in which Ace enrolls in IDA, the Institute of Disposable Arts, where he studies hip-hop. Through skits, Ace's journey at the school is detailed, while the songs feature Ace's signature brand of clever phrasings, punchline-heavy lyrics, gripping tales of ghetto life and insightful political commentary.
Greg Nice delivers the chorus on the festive hip-hop commentary "Don't Understand," while the somber "Dear Diary" has Ace questioning his place in hip-hop's pantheon. The latter is a rare hip-hop moment, one where an artist portrays himself as vulnerable and confused. "Eh, yo, Ace/ Don't tell me you thinking about a return," Ace raps on the cut, assuming the role of his diary. "I'm kind of concerned/ When will you old cats ever learn?/ It's time to hang it up."
"It was self-analyzation," Ace said of "Dear Diary." "The lyrics on that song are the way I feel some days when I wake up. 'Why are you even considering making records anymore? Nobody's really checking for it anymore. You're wasting your time. There's maybe 10 cats that are going to buy your record.' I wake up sometimes and I feel that way. I'm being honest about my feelings and maybe saying some stuff that people might be saying."
Looking back at his career, which includes collaborations with Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Marley Marl and others, Ace offers the thankful "No Regrets," a reflective history of sorts where he gives praise to all of those who contributed to his better musical memories.
On a less explicit narrative line, Disposable Arts explores the relationship between Ace's character and his roommate at IDA, portrayed on the album by MC Paul Barman, a white, Jewish, Prince Paul affiliate. Some of the interaction between Ace and Barman was inspired by Ace's own trip to college. He graduated from the University of Rhode Island and interacted with many Maine and Vermont natives who had never been around black people and had a cursory knowledge of hip-hop, at best.
Barman's character actively pursues hip-hop, though. In fact, he's even performing a freestyle rap when Ace first meets him in their dorm room.
The interaction between Ace and Barman is sometimes tense and always entertaining. Like the songs on Disposable Arts, these skits provide a riveting story of their own. "When people spend their $15 or $16.99 to buy a CD, I think they want to feel like they bought something that's valuable, that something was a good purchase, that somebody actually took time and put together a project," Ace said. "They didn't just put anything together, throwing some songs back to back and put a label on it. I really respect the buyer, the fan, the listener because I'm one and I know that I want to be entertained. I try to look at it from that perspective and try to make a record as if I was going out and buying it."
As a fan of hip-hop, Ace hopes to encourage fans to respect the art form and its architects. When he attended a recent Run-DMC concert, he was disappointed with the lukewarm response fans gave the legendary Queens trio.
"They deserve a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of love," Ace said. "They should be made to feel like they are some of hip-hop's pioneers. When people talk about them or when they're mentioned, people that really know give it up, but a lot of people could care less.
"I look at rock and roll and I see cats that don't do an album for 10 years and then tour and sell out stadiums," he continued. "I feel like we need to reach that point in hip-hop. Fans need to embrace their past heroes, still uphold and respect music that was from 10, five, three years ago."
Masta Ace, who has released albums in three different decades, hopes that Disposable Arts as well as other releases from like-minded artists will help hip-hop regain its balance. Coming from an era where such disparate artists as Biz Markie, Public Enemy, N.W.A, Too Short and the Geto Boys were all popular, Ace knows that it can happen.
"We have to reach a point where people want to hear more than one thing," Ace said. "From a fan's perspective, people are just feeding more into the pursuit of ice, platinum, cars and rims, and that's all that it's about.
"Sometimes I get depressed and wonder, 'What's wrong with people?' We all would like a nice car and jewelry, but you want people to be a little more well-rounded than they are."