An Ode to Mase's 'Harlem World,' My Very First Hip-Hop Album

For better or worse, Mase’s debut album was my introduction to hip-hop.
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For better or worse, Mase’s debut album was my introduction to hip-hop.

When I was 11-years-old, I took a road trip through middle-of-nowhere Kansas with my mom, my two younger siblings and my aunt Connie that would change my life forever.

We stopped in a town small enough to pass through without noticing, but apparently big enough to have a Wal-Mart—somewhat of a benchmark for proper civilization in the Midwest. I can’t for the life of me remember what we needed—maybe my mom and aunt just needed a break from being confined to a minivan with three little shits—but I’ll never forget what I left with.

While walking past the electronics department, I asked to stop and check out the music section. At 11, my music taste was eclectic in the worst way, comprised of the '80s hair metal my dad would play, my mom’s love for Billy Joel and Neil Diamond, and whatever I heard on the radio. Nevertheless, for some reason, I felt equipped enough to navigate the infinitude of musical possibilities that waited for me in those four rows of a small-town Wal-Mart.

Out of the multitude of possible selections, I passed one that inexplicably spoke to me—Mase’s Harlem World. To this day, I have no idea why I hand-selected the Bad Boy rapper's debut album. My exposure to hip-hop up until that point had been popular radio jams and a few Master P songs I’d heard at a friend's house (I'm pretty sure "I Got The Hook-Up" was my subconscious introduction to the genre).

I asked my mom to buy the album for me (I doubt I did so in a reasonable manner), but she refused. She didn't have a moral opposition to hip-hop, she just didn’t want to shell out $20 for a CD. Luckily for me, my aunt was the kind to spoil her nephews and nieces and so I made a beeline to the second-in-command. My power move proved successful.

To say I played the shit out of Harlem World would be a gross understatement. Harlem World remained on repeat for the duration of the road trip and long after we’d returned home to the suburbs of Kansas City. I was hooked. From the funky ambiance of “Puff’s Intro” to the ghetto existentialism of “24 Hrs. To Live,” Harlem World took my view of the world and flipped it upside down before draping it in platinum and diamonds.

It’s worth noting that at the time (and maybe still to this day), Wal-Mart only sold edited versions of albums. As cool as I felt bumping “Take What’s Yours,” I had to use my best 11-year-old imagination to fill in the blanks of DMX’s heavily-edited verse.

Some years later, following a freak accident with a friend’s stereo that left my CD in ruins, the angel of destiny that was his mom replaced my broken, edited Harlem World with a shiny, new and UNEDITED Harlem World. I had won the suburban white kid lottery.

Fast forward to present day, I’m a certified hip-hop nerd. A large portion of my time between that day and today has been occupied by researching, listening to and discussing hip-hop. While I can’t say I still listen to Mase with the same fervor I did at 11, Harlem World oddly still informs my enjoyment of the music and culture today.

Mase serving as my true introduction to hip-hop left me with a lasting East Coast preference, an early influence that led me down a path to discover artists like Big Shug and Gang Starr rather than Kurupt and Too $hort. Harlem World was undoubtedly New York, and it was just as influenced by Puff Daddy’s flashiness as it was Mase’s time spent with Big L and Cam’ron.

Having been born after the reign of artists like Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, Mase was the original pretty-boy lyricist. At the time, I couldn’t relate to his bling, but I strongly believe that duality is the reason I'm able to profess love for Future and Sean Price in the same breath. Mase would brag about his fur coat in one line and vividly describe murdering you in the next with a lyrical complexity for each not often found in the flashy raps of 2017.

Harlem World isn’t a perfect album by any means, but it will always be my album. Mase unknowingly led me into the culture that now consumes my waking life, and I’m forever grateful.