The great 2001 concept album Disposable Arts resurrected Juice Crew veteran Masta Ace from old-school purgatory, establishing him as a hip-hop auteur remarkable for unflinching candor, sociological acumen, and conceptual savvy. The album netted stellar reviews and added greatly to Ace's cult following, but it ultimately fell victim to conditions far too common in music: insufficient marketing and an independent label's rapid collapse. Disposable Arts largely succeeded in its audacious, substantial statement about the entirety of life, as heard in songs that commented passionately on topics ranging from relationships to industry politics to the bittersweet passage of time. Ace has raised the bar for his follow-up, A Long Hot Summer, by typing it as a prequel to Disposable Arts. But experience has thankfully brought him the wisdom and tools to match his ambition.
Ending where Disposable Arts began, A Long Hot Summer chronicles, through skits and songs, the events that led to Ace's incarceration. But the conceptual framework remains loose and flexible. Equal parts storyteller, sociologist, and sonic director, Ace has rounded up an inspired supporting cast of beatsmiths and guest artists, each of whom plays a carefully crafted part. "Soda & Soap" combines two cheesy song concepts, weaving the brand names of soaps and beverages into a goofy narrative, but it's still satisfying, thanks to DJ Spinna's slinky, seductive production and Jean Grae's infectious hook. Strick rides shotgun on another highlight, "F.A.Y." (short for "Fuck All Y'all"), which elevates player-hating to the level of righteous anger. On "The Ways," meanwhile, Ace recommends the Keith Murray school of dealing with suits, advocating physical violence as the only way to counteract the financial and emotional violence that labels, independent and major, inflict on rappers.
Only in its conclusion does the disc fall short of its predecessor. Disposable Arts built to an emotionally devastating climax that channeled all the anger, joy, pride, sadness, and regret of Ace's long career into two unforgettable concluding tracks. A Long Hot Summer ends on a similarly melancholy but less memorable note. (Then again, since the album asks to be heard before Disposable Arts, it makes sense that the saga would peak with its sequel rather than its prequel.) Nevertheless, Ace, who has hinted strongly that this will be his last album, stands as one of the few old-schoolers who actually seem to be getting better with age.