‘Cause I knew it from the start, baby when you broke my heart, that I had to come again and show you that I’m real. –Mark Morrison
“Return of the Mack” was the lead single off Mark Morrison’s 1996 album of the same name. I know nothing else about the album, and the only other thing I know about Mark Morrison is that he once got in trouble because he had a stun gun at an airport. Perhaps this speaks to the greatness of this track, the fact that you don’t need to know any peripheral information to thoroughly enjoy it. Were I a professional baseball player, “Return of the Mack” would be on the short list of walk-up songs, right up there with Pantera’s “Walk” and the guitar solo from Van Halen’s “Panama.” Whenever this song is played, humans of a certain age lose their shit. Back in 1996, I borrowed the CD single from a teammate and played it on a loop because the only other option I had was to covert it to cassette, and that wasn’t going to happen.
Other than the song’s title, the most repeated lyrics are those detailing how his ex-lover did him wrong. In short: she lied, he tried; she lied, he cried. Morrison makes it clear that this episode utterly destroyed him. “Return of the Mack” is meant to be taken in the most literal sense; he urges someone he calls “baby” to “listen carefully while he sings his comeback song. It’s the pop/rap equivalent to Old School‘s “Mitch-a-palooza,” celebrating Luke Wilson’s character’s newly single life as he tries to recover from the discovery that his girlfriend had been cheating on him in the most nefarious way possible. Maybe Morrison’s break-up wasn’t that bad, but it might as well have been. “Return of the Mack” lays the bravado on pretty thick.
The upbeat riff and Morrison’s voice are a figurative phoenix rising from the ashes of a failed relationship. While that imagery does not exist within the song, it’s exactly what we are to imagine as Morrison continues to assert his return to “show us that he’s real” and “run the show.” He isn’t just back, he’s all the way back, a single alpha-male lion stalking the grasslands for prey. The problem, however, is that while he’s roaming the savanna with his chest puffed out, he’s thinking of his broken heart and the woman who broke it. His banter is aimed at himself. “Return of the Mack” is three minutes and forty-five seconds of over-compensation. I want to say I cannot relate, but maybe I can.
Whenever I suffered a romantic failing, my focus naturally fell inward rather than outward. This kind of self-analysis is one my least-productive traits, but it has, over time, resulted in a self-awareness that I deeply value. This self-awareness is what prevents me from truly relating to Mark Morrison. I could never truly take on “Return of the Mack” as any kind of mantra because it implies I was some kind of “mack” or “boss” or whatever to begin with. I know this is not true. Yet when I think about things I admire in other people, I find that they are almost exclusively traits that I don’t possess. It’s not that admire them because they are aligned with my own beliefs and personality, but the opposite. And maybe that’s what “Return of the Mack” is: a juxtaposition of the person Morrison is and the person Morrison wants to be. Now that? I can certainly understand.