Masta Ace

Masta Ace started his career impressively enough: He was a member of the Queensbridge Juice Crew and had first dibs on 1989's "The Symphony," arguably the best posse cut ever recorded. He went from Cold Chillin' records to Delicious Vinyl to almost complete obscurity, leaving a faint trail of radio staples ("Me and the Biz") and underground classics ("Born to Roll," "Style Wars"). Now, 13 years after his career began and six since his last album, Masta Ace emerges a stranger to a whole new generation of hip-hop heads with Disposable Arts--73 minutes worth of the best material of his career--on the modest-sized independent label, Yosumi.

The midtempo jeep beats that dominated Ace's Delicious years are still intact, evidenced by cuts like "I Like Dat," "Don't Understand" (featuring the most recent resurrection of Greg Nice, with excellent results) and "P.T.A." Also preserved are housing-projects anthems like "Take a Walk"; "Black Episode" with lyricist lounge regulars Punch & Words; and "Dear Yvette," an update of--and debate with--the Cool J classic.

However, Disposable Arts has something more: real, rare-for-the-genre introspection. Masta Ace builds on typical themes like industry beefs and the state of hip-hop music with refreshing layers of self-doubt and irony. Working from a loose "return to the game" theme fortified by between-song skits, Ace compares his comeback to a prison release on the somber "Too Long," and "Enuff" finds the MC pondering how to remain viable in the industry ("Guess I gotta brag more/Must don't boast enough/Ain't New York enough, ain't West Coast enough"). "Take a Walk" juxtaposes images of blue skies and sunshine with a harrowing stroll through the projects. That track, "Alphabet" and "Dear Diary," a relentless episode of self-flagellation driven by a creeping psychedelic hook, employ the kind of archival samples that would make Prince Paul blush.