Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

"There's no variety in hip-hop right now. You needed me to come back."

So declares prodigal rapper Mase.

Five years have passed since Mason Betha decided to devote himself to God and take a hiatus from hip-hop. He officially re-enters the rap sweepstakes Aug. 24, when his third album, "Welcome Back," hits shelves worldwide.

Mase began his break with six albums left on his Bad Boy contract. Now the former Sean "P. Diddy" Combs protégé's credits read Bad Boy/Fo' Reel/UMRG.

Mase co-owns Fo' Reel with his former manager, Country, who founded the imprint. "He helped me get a deal in the first place and knew I wanted my own label," Mase says. "So he said, 'Why don't we do it like the old times -- me and you?'"

Despite his long break, Mase insists his music hasn't changed. "Back then, I brought fun and style," he says. "I'm doing the same thing now."

He deflects questions about reconciling his rap return with his ministry, declaring only that "Mase was never a filthy artist. I was never saying, 'You B's and hos.' So I don't know why people keep asking me about using curse words. All great artists have some spiritual backing. Before this, I was empty with riches on the outside. Now I'm rich on the inside and outside."

By most accounts, "Welcome Back" contains happy songs with some laid-back grooves. The various selections, produced by Fo' Reel Productions, Rick Rock and others, use samples from such songs as Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" (on "My Harlem Lullaby").

The title track, which reintroduced Mase to hip-hop fans, samples John Sebastian's theme to the 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter." It peaked at No. 17 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart.

Combs and Mase are executive producers, but Combs' only other credit is a cameo on second single "Breathe, Stretch, Shake." That's a marked difference from Mase's previous Bad Boy outings.

"He pretty much said, 'You've learned my system. You know how to do this,'" Mase says.

In addition to club jam "Breathe" spreading his word, Mase appears on remixes of two current hits: Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" and Terror Squad's "Lean Back." He is likely to perform the former on the Usher tour Aug. 12 in Dallas as part of West's opening segment.





Excerpted from the Aug. 14, 2004, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.

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