The more some things change, the more they stay the same.
It's another cool night in an isolated airplane hangar two hours outside Los Angeles. Another half-million-dollar video by co-directors Puff Daddy and Paul Hunter of what is sure to be a major radio hit from Puff Daddy's "No Way Out" album.
The scene--with Puff Daddy and a hot young rapper by his side in matching suits--is eerily similar to the video shoot that the same directors did for the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize" video in Los Angeles a week before B.I.G. was murdered last March.
The young rapper is even wearing a diamond-studded medallion in the likeness of Jesus, identical to the one B.I.G. was wearing the night he was killed.
Mase, whose debut album, "Harlem World," entered the charts at No. 1 last week, is the rapper at Puff Daddy's side, and he's solemn as he talks about the irony.
"This is Biggie's Jesus piece," he says, cradling the medallion. "I wear it for good luck. I always wear this, knowing that now with Biggie gone, I have to take on a lot of responsibilities."
Mase is quick to point out that he's not trying to be B.I.G.'s replacement on Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records label. He's a young man who's lost a lot of friends on the way up, and he's trying his best to maintain his own program in the shadow of their absence.
"I'm still here to be Mase," says the Harlem-based artist, who's in his early 20s. "I ain't trying to be No. 1. I'm No. 3. . . . For both Biggie and Tupac [Shakur] to be gone so suddenly, that ain't right. I just want people to respect me."
It's a goal that his excellent chart-topping album should easily accomplish. The collection, which has sold nearly half a million copies in its first two weeks in the stores, shows Mase as his own artist, not just a Puff Daddy crony who coasted to fame by being in the right place at the right time--specifically in supporting roles on lots of Puff Daddy and B.I.G. videos and records.
Beyond the booming party tracks, such as "Take What's Yours" and "Love You So," Mase delivers in "What You Want" one of the most enticing rap ballads since Rakim's "Mahogany." In "24 Hrs. to Live" he and his friends offer a poignant yet occasionally lighthearted look at how each would spend his last day on Earth.
But don't let his pop-friendly tracks, baby face and sensitive eyes mislead you. Mase displays a rough side on other tracks, including "Wanna Hurt Your Mase," that seems torn from the days when his rap pseudonym in Harlem was Murder Mase.
Given the relative smoothness of the hit single "Feels So Good," the rapper's mercurial content is surprising.
"I'm not watered down from my Murder Mase days," he explains in a laid-back, slow-rolling voice during a break in the video shoot.
"When I was younger, everyone else was wilding and I kept a level head. That's why I'm here today. All my friends are dead or in jail--every last one of them."
It's his personal history--and the dark memories of it--that enable him to speak out against aspects of gangsta rap.
"There's nothing to be glorified when a little kid has to see her daddy dead, like Biggie's daughter," he continues, his eyes softening while his voice rises. "When she sees her daddy's videos, she covers her eyes in fear, the same when his songs are on the radio. People don't know that. That's destroying that girl's childhood. . . .
"I just want everybody to have fun. When I came into rap, that was my whole inspiration. That's what rap used to be about. It changed to violence and resulted in violence."
Born Mason Betha in Jacksonville, Fla., Mase, the youngest of seven children, moved to New York at 6, though he frequently went back to Florida during his teens to stay with relatives when he started getting into trouble at home. Mase is very close to his mother but has never met his biological father--a fact that he addresses on the album.
"I wonder how he feels when he sees me on TV, knowing that I have his exact name and that I'm a star and he didn't even want to claim me," Mase says. "I want to hear his side; there's two sides to every story."
Before rapping, which he always saw as a part-time pursuit, his plan was to play pro basketball, since he was a starting point guard at the State University of New York, Purchase, on an athletic scholarship. When that didn't work out, he thought about being a social worker. Being a rapper was the last thing on his mind.
"That was Plan C," he says. "I'm not the kind of person to put all my eggs in one basket."
In 1996 he met performer and entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs--Puff Daddy--at a music convention in Atlanta. It was brotherly love at first sight. Combs heard his rap and had Mase do a verse on a remix of "Only You" by the group 112 a few weeks later, and the rest is history.
"I liked his style," Combs says. "His personality stood out. The sound of his voice. He sounded like me."
"We're both perfectionists," Mase adds. "That's why it clicks between us. We both want the best."
Being a rapper is a dream come true, but Mase, who's also weighing acting offers, has other aspirations.
"Once I get to a certain level, I don't want to rap all my life," he says. "I have another side that the world needs to know. I'm not just a rapper; I'm an intelligent young man. But being able to give my mother everything she's ever wanted, I could care less about being famous or the money; that's my dream. That's all that matters to me."