MA$E -- the remix 

He now thinks rap can save your soul

Even given hip-hop's unpredictability, a rapper-turned-preacher-turned-rapper again raises eyebrows. That's what happened this spring when former Harlem World wonder Ma$e (note the dollar sign) decided to leave the pulpit, where he had retreated following a spiritual awakening, and return to the rap game. His new album, Welcome Back, has just been released, and it has folks talking about what's behind Ma$e's latest incarnation.

The rapper made his mark in the late '90s as a sort of sidekick to Sean "Puffy" Combs (as he was known then). They were all about getting girls and getting money, and Ma$e -- with his lazy yet charismatic flow -- rode this gospel to the top of the charts. His 1997 debut album, Harlem World, sold 4 million copies, and when his second album, Double Up, hit in 1999, more success seemed inevitable.

But like something from a fable, just as the album was reaching stores, the golden boy walked away from it all, denouncing the live-it-up lifestyle that brought him so much fame. He left New York for Atlanta and stopped answering to "Ma$e," preferring to go by his birth name, Mason Betha.

Instead of going to nightclubs and parties, he took classes at Clark Atlanta. Instead of crafting raps, he wrote a book, Revelations: There Is a Light After the Lime.

Betha stayed in this mode for five years, even founding his own nondenominational Atlanta-based ministry called S.A.N.E. (Saving a Nation Endangered). But earlier this year, St. Louis rap superstar Nelly asked him to appear on a song. Betha decided to go for it, and soon Ma$e was reborn.

His new album is designed to give fans a bridge between the present and past. "I haven't come to preach to them," the rapper told "Ryan Cameron Morning Show" co-host Rashan Ali in a recent interview. "I am just showing them my lifestyle and, through my lifestyle, they will be drawn to my faith." The album features slick, state-of-the-art production, but the lyrics are tamer than those on most hip-hop hits.

Like his old self, the revamped Ma$e is still committed to living well and talking about it. But this time he says his boasting has purpose. "Being in the world [before], I rapped about prosperity," he told Ali. "It was just a demonic prosperity, a prosperity you got from manipulating people and saying vulgar things to women and things such as that. But now I am just telling them about a good life and a good life you don't have to do no wrong to get, you can get it in Christ Jesus."

So far, Ma$e's return has been successful. His first single -- the album's title track, which samples the theme from "Welcome Back, Kotter" -- was a moderate hit.

He also seems to have his congregation behind him, even if his latest move has left some scratching their heads. A former member who asked to remain anonymous, said, "A lot of people were confused but they were supportive. They were confused when people would come up to them and say, 'What's going on? Your pastor's rapping,' but they would still just have his back."

Others haven't been as understanding. Former friend and fellow rapper Cam'ron publicly questioned Ma$e's integrity during a New York radio interview. He referenced a sermon Ma$e once delivered in which he called rap music "the devil."

Ma$e, however, says he's not worried about naysayers because he takes direction from a higher authority. "In times past, I've told the public that I would never rap again," he said to Ali. "And that was safely saying what I desired to do. As I mentioned before, I'm not my own. I can only do what the Father instructs me to do."

He now feels that his raps can inspire. "I have to be a light to that generation. Without it," he said, "the people will perish."

Can he get an amen?

music@creativeloafing.com

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