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Welcome Back (Bad Boy)

It's easy -- really easy -- to hate Mase. Even after a five-year hiatus, it's hard to forgive a man who, next to Puff Daddy, pioneered insipid pop rap and ushered in the "shiny suit" era of hip-hop. In the late '90s, Mase's mumbling flow ruled New York over Puffy's '80s-jacked beats. While the pop charts ate up the stuff, the Bad Boy takeover drove longtime rap fans back underground. Even after he found religion and left the rap game to preach, it was hard to forgive the man who gave a hundred boring rappers (Fabolous, we're looking at you) their style. Unfortunately, it's also really hard to dislike the happy-go-lucky bounce of his comeback single, "Welcome Back."

Therein lies the essence of Mase, an unimpressive MC with a knack for a good single. Five years in the making, Welcome Back begs for radio play. Though the album is only two singles deep thus far ("Welcome Back" and the phenomenal, Rick Rock-produced "Breathe Stretch Shake"), almost any of the twelve tracks could easily make pop radio. The Welcome Back formula is a combination of harmless, above-average synth beats, two or three Mase verses and a memorable hook sung by a nameless R&B diva. At worst the songs are dull, but at their best they stand out without, um, standing out. "I Owe" and "Gotta Survive" are completely by-the-numbers -- and relentlessly catchy.

Mase tries hard to bring his new-found morals to tracks such as "Keep It On" (women, you can have a good time without getting naked) and "Money Comes and Goes" (world, there are more important things than money), but the messages are as simplistic as Mase's songs. While admirable, his lyrics are largely theoretical, church-approved fables with as much practical application to the real world as "Just Say No." But aside from the preaching, Welcome Back piles on the hits far better than most.

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