Let no one say that slang is predictable.
In 2017, the rapper Future released what would become his highest-charting single to that point: “Mask Off.” Like much of his output, the song features a minimal trap beat and lean, smooth production. A distinctive flute sample from Tommy Butler’s “Prison Song” (1976) floats airily over Future’s lyrics, which delve into his drug use (molly and Percocets), recall his time in stash houses and detail the life of luxury he now enjoys. Where some in hip hop would use this material to argue their authenticity — their “realness” — Future styles it as a form of radical honesty: “Mask on / Fuck it, mask off.” You don’t truly see a person until the mask comes off.
The song’s popularity transformed it (and that flute line) into the stuff of memes, and the idea of going “mask off” proved broadly useful to the culture. For social media in particular, the question of appearance versus reality necessitated a term that spoke to that moment “when you just don’t care anymore,” and so quit bothering to pretend. A maskless person may show an ugly side to themselves, but, in Future’s conception, the warts-and-all version of oneself is usually preferable to the sanitized profile — at least it relieves the tension of affecting some pose.
Three years later, any reference to masks is probably literal: Face masks are a crucial part of the effort to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 — and, as a result, a symbol of the culture war that has exploded over the perceived seriousness of the pandemic. On the one side are those who trust medical experts saying that regularly masking up reduces transmission of the virus, and on the other are Trump voters and surrogates (plus assorted truthers and conspiracy nuts) who believe the pandemic is overblown, or some kind of outrageous hoax. Thus, the lunatics in viral videos fighting Walmart employees because they want to shop unmasked are going “mask off” in the figurative way, too: They’re telegraphing their politics, and they don’t care what you think.
Even before the coronavirus swept the globe, however — and in the fascist response to protests for racial justice that followed — there was a growing sense that all sides in American politics had dropped the idea of civility for its own sake. Crisis upon crisis, disaster capitalism and snowballing corruption have left us unable to mince words. That we effectively chose to let 139,000 people (and counting) die rather than control a plague or let the stock market suffer is a culmination of “mask off” theory, not its beginning. The elites no longer act like they give a shit about our survival, and we don’t disguise our contempt for them. You want to either abolish the police or point guns at demonstrators walking through your ultra-wealthy neighborhood.
As the physical masks proliferate, the kind that Future rapped about are disappearing, and his track acquires a strange new legacy. We are confronting ourselves. America is looking itself square in the mirror, and I think we all agree it’s some scary shit. On the other hand, how else would we hope to cure the rot in the soul of this dumb country? Disguising and downplaying our ills had always held us back, and we kicked a lot of cans down the road until we came to this cliff. If the worst is yet to come, then fuck it, at least we’ll have eyes open and masks off.
But the other masks on, of course.
I mean, unless you’re going double mask off.
You know what I’m saying.