March 23, 2004

Murs + 9th = Classic
By Canyon Cody
Published in The Heights

To an underground hip-hop fan, a Living Legends, Definitive Jux, and Justus League collaboration is nothing more than a wet dream: something fantasized about but probably too good to be true. After listening to Murs' new album Murs 3:16 - The 9th Edition, which features production entirely from 9th Wonder, hip-hop fans will probably need to take their bedding to the laundromat for a cleaning.

A few years ago, Murs was traveling through Europe, showing up at rap concerts, and convincing performers on the night of the show to let him open for them. Halfway around the world, producer 9th Wonder was sitting in his bedroom, using Fruity Loops to layer an a cappella version of Nas' God's Son on top of his own mellow, fluid beats.

A year later, Murs signed to underground superlabel Def Jux, and 9th was the critically-acclaimed producer of the debut from indie favorite Little Brother. Murs and 9th were both bubbling just under the radar that defines commercial success, and they decided to do an album together.

Then Jay-Z happened. The reigning king of rap was impressed by one of 9th Wonder's beats and hired him to produce a song on The Black Album alongside Timbaland and the Neptunes. Suddenly, 9th Wonder was the hottest producer on the block and Murs, for a second, worried that 9th would forget about him.

Instead, 9th used the collaboration project as an opportunity to show off his producing abilities and, as a result, created a number of beautiful instrumentals, but at times, he also seemed to be trying to demonstrate his ability to produce radio-friendly singles. On "Bad Man," 9th Wonder and Murs jump on more bandwagons than an Amish hitchhiker, rapping about exaggerated sexual exploits over a high-pitch Jamaican dance hall sample, as if to say, "I can do the Kanye West thing, too."

In general, though, the production and rapping are superb, exactly what you expect from two artists of this caliber, but nothing more. The album doesn't astound; it is simply very good. At his best, Murs tackles the problems with underground hip-hop, such as on "And This Is For," in which he warns white fans against using "the N-word" and laments the fact that albums from white rappers sell so many more copies than his do.

On his last album, Murs declared that it was "the end of the beginning" of his career. "Now it's the end of that 'cause now I gotta do in-stores, photo shoots, interviews," he complained. Def Jux, his new superpower record label, expected him to contribute to the marketing of his album, and Murs seemed annoyed with the additional responsibilities that produce a commercial success. With increased exposure of his new album, Murs now hopes to reap the benefits of his efforts and enjoy increased sales.

Murs (which, among other things, stands for "Makin Underground Raw Sh-") brings a distinct West Coast flavor to Def Jux and the underground in general. He isn't as lyrically abstract as most Def Jux artists, such as Aesop Rock. He's also black, which in underground hip-hop is becoming something of a novelty. His West Coast upbringing also exposed him to fellow Los Angeles natives Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers, both of whom he references as major musical influences.

Murs' background brings a unique perspective to hip-hop: He's no drug dealing gangsta like 50 Cent ("I'm more Coldplay than I am Ice T," he raps), but he's not a daisy-wielding, suburbanite hippie like De La Soul, either. In fact, it's surprising that there aren't more rappers like Murs: He grew up in the 'hood and, as a result, personally experienced the issues that affect poor black Americans, but never actually started shooting people or selling crack. Murs comes off like a regular guy with some stories to tell, the best of which is "Trevor an Them," a hilarious story of a 7-11 robbery gone wrong.

"Walk Like a Man" is the most impressive demonstration of 9th Wonder's progressive production and Murs' unique storytelling ability. 9th divides the song into three separate movements to complement the mood of each verse. In the first verse, Murs decides to get rid of his gun ("I never did use it/ What's the point of holding heat if you're never gonna use it, stupid?"). 9th creates a somber mood for the second verse, which chronicles the murder of Murs' friend. In the final verse, Murs raps about the funeral and the retaliatory murder of the killer. Instead of bragging about his violent history, Murs admits, "Now I'm haunted with remorse, and I wish I hadn't done it."

Murs' new album won't disappoint those who eagerly anticipated his collaboration with 9th Wonder, but no one will be astounded, either. Both of them are capable of more, but until then, Murs 3:16 - The 9th Edition will keep the underground happy.

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