When I met up with Mason Parker at Northlake Mall on a recent Saturday afternoon, I immediately recognized a change in him. It had been three years since I had last seen Parker, before he played his “Farewell” show at Hattie’s Tap & Tavern and took off for Los Angeles to record his debut album.
Back in 2017, when I sat down with Parker for a Q&A about his decision to leave and then recorded an episode of the now defunct Local Vibes podcast in which he joined me and cohost Mark Kemp as a guest, there was always an air of bravado about Parker’s presence.
It wasn’t anything I would call overbearing, or even annoying for that matter, just playful comments that he would lace into the conversation here and there to make sure everyone knew that he was the best rapper around. Mark and I would cast grinning glances at each other and keep it moving, as Parker had every right to be cocky.
The maturation of Mason Parker
Fast forward to 2020 at the Northlake Mall food court, where Mason Parker ordered cheesesteaks from Charleys for him and his fiancé, Kimberly. The three of us sat and talked for half an hour, and though Parker still had swagger, I kept waiting for the braggadocio to rear its head. Instead, I found a more insightful, practical Parker.
Early on in our conversation, the 34-year-old father of four addressed the fact that he had returned to Charlotte in August 2018, just 14 months after having left, with no record and no large following. It seems the experience humbled him, while reminding him what was important in life.
“When I left, it was a thing,” he recalled. “There was the interview and the podcast and all that, so for me to not come back riding on a chariot and stuff like that, I felt like I had failed.”
Since returning to Charlotte, Parker has watched the rise of Da Baby, with whom he had traded barbs on records since back when they were both little-known local rappers going by Quill and Big Baby Jesus, respectively. Rather than let that add to his sense of failure, Parker made a realization about his own goals.
“I had like an ‘Aha’ moment where I realized I don’t want that,” he said. “I don’t want to be a rapper anymore. I rap, but I’m an artist, I’m a creator, there’s so many different things that I want to do, nor do I want that level or that type of notoriety or fame. I like being able to sit here in Northlake and do this interview.”
He mentioned that earlier that day, his mailman recognized him from one of his videos, and that sort of recognition meant more to him because it was about more than fame or a name.
“It’s nice when it’s at that level because you know it’s real genuine and you’re not a commodity so to speak, in the sense where you’re the hot guy to listen to now,” Parker said. “So they really aren’t very invested in you as an artist, but just looking at who you are. I like when people show love because they appreciate what I do.”
‘Quantum Leap’ comes together
And yet a creator must create. During his time back in Charlotte, Parker has been recording songs that he wrote as a way to confront those first feelings of failure and the epiphany he went through around staying true to his own artistic nature.
On April 20, Mason Parker finally dropped his debut album, Quantum Leap, featuring 10 tracks that show how he’s only honed his long-known ability to ride the line between swaggering verse-driven tracks and Afrocentric methodology.
“A quantum leap is defined as a sudden and significant advancement or repositioning,” Parker stated in a press release upon the album’s launch. “I felt like there was no better way to describe my last few years away from the [music] scene. I left to focus on growing as a person and now that I am back, I’m more focused than ever. This album illustrates everything that I’ve gone through to bring me here. This season of my life is indeed my quantum leap.”
Later, in speaking with me at Northlake Mall, Parker returned to that idea of “a new season” in his life, which isn’t surprising to those familiar with his work around Charlotte. He has traveled overseas as an actor with Quentin Talley’s OnQ Productions, starring in Miles & Coltrane; he’s built a name as a spoken-word poet alongside longtime friend Boris “Bluz” Rogers and others in the city; he won awards and critical acclaim as one of the city’s most versatile rappers; and now he’s moving into his new role: comic book author.
In 2018, Parker wrote and released his first comic book, The Paperback Hero Saga, accompanied by a short film starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner of Cosby Show fame and scored by Bluz. However, after returning to Charlotte and finding a new distribution deal for the book, Parker pulled the original from shelves and began reworking the story into what will now become a 100-page graphic novel.
Working alongside Charlotte-based illustrator Wolly McNair, who also designed the Quantum Leap cover, Parker is working to create an entire world of characters with roots in his musical projects.
“Even the theme of the album itself, with Quantum Leap being cosmically themed, plays into it,” Parker said. “There will be characters that come out of each of these projects that people will be able to follow back to their origins in one of the tracks of each project. So as each project comes out, one track from each project will be like the theme song for a character in the universe that I create.”
Parker capitalizes on his many talents
Mason Parker will aim to release the graphic novel in 2022, and will continue to make music in the meantime. It’s all part of a plan to capitalize on his multifaceted talents, which once kept industry reps away but now, thanks to the rise of other Renaissance men like Donald Glover, more people are intrigued with any new revenue streams an artist might have to offer.
Parker said he’d like to get out of “full-time rapper mode” and focus more on production, acting, scoring, content creation, consulting and whatever else he can dip his feet into, only booking music gigs when he truly has the urge to perform. With live gigs on the backburner for everyone in 2020, it only makes sense moving forward.
“If anything this pandemic has shown every artist that you gotta think like that,” he said. “And it’s funny because it’s amazing the evolution to me. I remember a time when I couldn’t find representation because of the exact reason why I have representation now — because I was a do-it-all, people didn’t know how to market me, they didn’t know how to handle me, they didn’t know what to do with me … And so, skip, skip, skip ahead to Donald Glover and whoever else, now it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we can make money off of you.’”
In June, he released a new video for “Stereotype,” one of the more racially conscious songs on Quantum Leap. He hadn’t planned on shooting the video until next year, but recent countrywide protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer convinced him the song needed to move up front.
Knowing that Parker was never one to sit on the sidelines during the local unrest of the Charlotte Uprising in 2016, I asked how it was for him to be home again and see protests of the same sort return to Uptown streets. He said it felt different in a way that has sparked some cautionary optimism in him.
“I have never seen such a surge of white consciousness and that’s something I don’t think anybody’s seen. This is some new shit,” he said. “I think that shows progress. The true test is going to be when it becomes uncomfortable, because it is going to become uncomfortable very fast. Because there’s a power shift, and if you’ve been living in a system that is tilted to your favor, even if it’s unbeknownst to you, and you’ve been comfortable in that system, it’s like being born again. You was in the womb and you was chilling and all the sudden the doctor smacks you on your ass and you’re like, ‘What the fuck, I don’t like this, I’m uncomfortable,’ and it’s going to be an issue adjusting to true equality.”
Those are words to take to heart, because if there’s anything Mason Parker is familiar with, it’s leaving a comfort zone.