The Number Ones

The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: Mark Morrison’s “Return Of The Mack”

Welcome to the Number Ones Bonus Tracks, the addendum to our regular Number Ones column. We at Stereogum recently wrapped up our fundraising campaign, and we’d like to thank everyone who donated to support this site and keep it going. To those All Access donors who pledged $1,000, I promised that I’d write a Number Ones-style column on a song of their choosing, as long as that song charted on the Billboard Hot 100. We’ll publish those once a week for the next couple of months.


PEAKED: #2 on June 7, 1997

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Hanson – “MMMBop”

This column is at the request of the Stereogum donors at CafeMedia Ad Management. They write, “Our selection of ‘Return Of The Mack’ by Mark Morrison is brought to you by popular vote from the CafeMedia team.”

There’s something so profoundly satisfying about the idea of the bounce-back — of suffering some kind of loss or humiliation but then using it as fuel. The bounce-back is never a simple thing. Emotions get messy, and very few triumphs are great enough to erase heartbreak or failure from a human mind. But the narrative is great — that whole idea of “fuck you, I’m doing great.” That’s the feeling embodied by Mark Morrison’s “Return Of The Mack,” one of the great bounce-back songs in pop music history.

“Return Of The Mack” is an ideal dumped-guy anthem. It’s breezy and fun and just ridiculously catchy, and its feeling isn’t stuck in the sting of betrayal. Instead, Morrison sounds transformed, confident, ready to go. Most of the song’s lyrics are about betrayal, about the ex who liiiied to him, but Morrison won’t let that bring him down. Instead, he’s focused on his come-up, on the return of the mack. When he wails out “oh my god!,” it’s like he can’t believe how fly he’s about to become. That’s beautiful.

On the “Return Of The Mack” bridge, we hear a bit about the relationship that brought Morrison down in the first place. A woman’s voice gets impatient with Morrison: “Ahh, Mark, stop lying about your big break. For god’s sake, I need a real man.” (That voice belongs to Angie Brown, a veteran session singer and the featured guest on Bizarre Inc’s 1992 single “I’m Gonna Get You,” which peaked at #47 in the US.) That seems to be the source of the wound. Morrison talks a big game about becoming a superstar, but she’s sick of waiting around for him. That hurts, but you can understand why she might be skeptical. Mark Morrison is, after all, a British R&B singer, and British R&B singers didn’t often become international stars in the late ’90s.

Mark Morrison was born in West Germany, and his parents came from the Bahamas. He also lived in Miami for a while as a kid. But Morrison mostly grew up in the English city of Leicester. (When Morrison was born, the #1 single in the US was Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”) He started making music in 1993, but his career really started later. In 1995, Morrison spent a few months in prison after a nightclub brawl, and the experience convinced him to devote himself to music full-time. Later that year, his single “Crazy” made the UK top 20. “Crazy,” like “Return Of The Mack,” is a hard-strutting club track that doesn’t have anything to do with the different variations on techno and house that were dominating the UK charts at the time. Instead, “Crazy” gets its juice from dancehall and from new jack swing, the kinetic and rap-adjacent form of R&B that had come out of the US in the late ’80s.

I was living in London when new jack swing first came along and made its presence known, and pretty much every kid I knew went nuts for that stuff, me included. At the time, Bobby Brown, an artist who will eventually appear in The Number Ones, felt like a legit contender to Michael Jackson’s top-dog status. Bobby Brown’s success faded, but I love the idea that the UK was still all-in on new jack swing more than a half-decade later.

Morrison followed up “Crazy” with “Return Of The Mack” in March of 1996. Morrison wrote the song, and he co-produced it with Phil Legg, a UK producer who’d done a lot of work with the London singer Des’ree. (Des’ree’s highest-charting US single, 1994’s “You Gotta Be,” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.) The “Return Of The Mack” beat is built almost entirely out of samples. The purring electric piano comes from “Games,” a 1992 single from the R&B singer Chuckii Booker. (“Games” peaked at #68. Chuckii Booker’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “Turned Away,” peaked at 42.) The needly guitar sounds and some of the drums come from “Genius Of Love,” the 1981 dance classic from Talking Heads offshoot Tom Tom Club. (“Genius Of Love” peaked at #31. Another track with a “Genius Of Love” sample will eventually appear in The Number Ones.) Other drum sounds came from “Rocket In The Pocket,” a 1978 live record from the Italo-disco producer Cerrone. (Cerrone’s highest-charting single, 1977’s “Supernature,” peaked at #70.)

There were other samples, too, like the staccato siren sounds from ESG’s culty 1981 club classic “UFO.” There are echoing, buried-in-the-mix scratches: “Huh hah” grunts from Treacherous Three’s “Feel The Heartbeat,” “Good!” from Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper,” “straight gangsta mack” from Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” (“The Humpty Dance,” from 1990, peaked at #11, which is the only thing stopping me from giving it a 10.) Effectively, Morrison and Legg were doing what good rap and R&B producers did in the ’90s. They took sounds that were floating around in the ether — often, sounds that had been sampled dozens of times — and blended them into a seamless whole that felt new.

And “Return Of The Mack” really rides. The huge drums, the itchy little guitar stabs, the tremendous strut-roll of the bassline — it all works together. Morrison sings over all of it with a breezy nasal intensity. You can’t place his accent as British or as anything else. It’s just a voice in love with itself, shaking off old betrayals. When Morrison sings that you lied to him, he doesn’t even sound mad. He just sounds excited that his mack is returning. He’s in full-on party mode even when he’s talking about his lowest moments.

The dissonance between Morrison’s heartbroken lyrics and the wild exuberance of the song itself is the secret weapon of “Return Of The Mack.” Morrison says that he cried, but he doesn’t sound like someone who’s been crying. Instead, he drips triumphant swagger all over everything. Unlike many of the other R&B singers who scored hits in the ’90s, Morrison never ever slows to show off his voice. Instead, he floats on top of the groove, radiating just-set-free relief. The video reinforces all that. Director Jake Nava, whose work will eventually appear in The Number Ones, films Morrison partying his way through London, his hair immaculately angular and his chunky chain enormous. (Morrison’s whole style in the video is pure late-’80s, which fits the new jack swing feel of the song perfectly.)

“Return Of The Mack” went to #1 in the UK, and Morrison released his Return Of The Mack album a month after the single came out. In the UK, the album was big enough to send five singles into the top 10. “Return Of The Mack” also hit big throughout Europe. Finally, the song slowly caught on in the US, lingering in the Hot 100 for the better part of a year and finally peaking at #2 more than a year after it had topped the UK chart.

The trans-Atlantic delay worked out nicely for the song. It meant that “Return Of The Mack” became a summer jam in America during the year that Bad Boy was running everything. Morrison’s bounce-back joy, the track’s hard and club-ready bounce, and its subconscious-tug samples all fit nicely in the time that Puff Daddy’s bottle-popping euphoria fully captured American pop. (In fact, “Return Of The Mack” hit #2 in the US during one of the few 1997 weeks when a Puffy-affiliated record wasn’t at #1.)

Otherwise, though, Mark Morrison’s timing was not good. After “Return Of The Mack,” Morrison had a real chance at global pop stardom. His album, I learned while writing this, is really good, and some of those other UK hits probably could’ve crossed over in the US. But as “Return Of The Mack” was starting to gain traction in the US, Morrison was arrested for trying to bring a stun gun on a plane. Later on, he was in a nightclub fight that resulted in someone getting killed. He was sentenced to community service, but he tried to hire a lookalike to do his service for him, and he wound up in prison for a year.

After “Return Of The Mack,” only one more Mark Morrison track even touched the US charts. (1997’s “Moan & Groan” peaked at #76.) Morrison has had a series of arrests and legal issues in the years since, though he’s still making records. Last month, he got really mad at the mayor of Leicester. Morrison had an idea to open up a studio to keep kids off the street and to offset a recent outbreak of knife crime, but the mayor snubbed him. So now Mark Morrison is threatening to run for mayor. I hope he runs, and I hope he wins. I want to hear “Return Of The Mayor.”

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: In 2011, the LA rapper Mann had a minor UK with with “The Mack,” a Snoop Dogg/Iyaz collab that’s basically a straight-up remake of “Return Of The Mack.” Here’s the video:

(Mann’s highest-charting US single, 2010’s “Buzzin,” peaked at #61. Iyaz’s highest-charting single is 2009’s “Replay,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 4. Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in The Number Ones.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late Nipsey Hussle rapping over a “Return Of The Mack” sample — once again with Iyaz — on his 2013 track “Return Of The Swagg”:

(As lead artist, Nipsey Hussle’s highest-charting single is the 2019 Roddy Ricch/Hit-Boy collab “Racks In The Middle,” which peaked at #26. As a guest, his highest-charting single is DJ Khaled’s 2019 track “Higher,” which peaked at #21.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2016, the Swedish DJ Nevada had an international hit — one that did especially well in Australia and New Zealand, for whatever reason — when he made a tropical house version of “Return Of The Mack” that was just called “The Mack.” Mark Morrison guested, and so did Fetty Wap. Here’s the video:

(Fetty Wap’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “Trap Queen,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the CW’s Arrowverse shows, my dude Neal McDonough apparently plays a supervillain named Damien Darhk. (I interviewed McDonough once, back when I was doing Justified recaps for the GQ website. He seemed cool.) Here’s “Return Of The Mack” soundtracking a scene of Damien Darhk fucking some people up in a 2017 episode of Legends Of Tomorrow:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Detroit underground rap great Sada Baby parodying “Return Of The Mack” on his 2017 track “Return With My Strap”:

Thanks, CafeMedia Ad Management!

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