Over the years, the underground rap label known as Def(initive) Jux has garnered a reputation, for better or worse, as a strong collective of hip-hop’s “future". Run by former Company Flow honcho El-P, Def Jux features an array of artists- Aesop Rock, Mr Lif., Cannibal Ox, El-P himself- that have pushed the very boundaries of hip-hop by displaying dense, encrypted rhymes (that sometimes don’t even rhyme), equally dense production, bizarre and unstable flows and hooks, and undanceable beats and samples that favor cold, electronic bleeps, rumbles, and droning instead of vintage soul/jazz/funk samples. Some of it has been quite spectacular (see El-P’s Fantastic Damage, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein) others, well, not so (Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth, Vast Aire’s solo outing). If one is familiar with the label’s catalogue, listening to Def Jux staples like “Daylight", “Deep Space 9mm", and “Return of the B-Boy" one has to wonder, how does can one labelmate stay more distinct and original from their peers? Why, by working the very sound and style that Def Jux opposed from their very start.
Enter Murs, who, in a humble twist of irony, is arguably the most distinctive member of the label. Well, for one thing, he isn’t based in the label’s NY headquarters, but bright and sunny L.A. More importantly though, Murs prefers his hip-hop the “classic" way: where his labelmates fancy lyrics riddled with bleak Orwellian dytopias, mythic allusions, bible passages, and the world of science over cold, arrhythmic beats, Murs is a man of the art of storytellin’, real people, real situations, and loves it smothered with a bass-heavy head-bobbin groove.
But enough about all this. Mur’s sophomore release for the Def Jux label is a collaboration with up-and-coming producer 9th Wonder and the result is highly concentrated collection of songs that pertain that “conscious-rap" vibe, but achieves it at a time when the style is becoming more stagnant and homogenized (ie. Black Eyed Peas, Dilated Peoples). This album, probably much to the chagrin of Def Jux, is a very accessible and simple album that could probably be found on a typical hip-hop station and MTV. Yet interestingly enough, just like Murs is a black sheep in Def Jux, the lyrical contents of Murs 3:16 distances from the commerical acts of the time. After all how many major-label rappers these days would admit their inability to score women? How many rappers would reveal that they only last two minutes in the sack? Or that their idea of hustlin’ is selling candy door-to-door? Or would name-drop bands like Yellowcard, Thrice, and Tsunami Bomb in their liner notes? Or would reference “exotic" locales like Kamloops, Canada, George Lucas, or describe themselves as being “more Coldplay than Ice-T"? Well Murs does all this and, as I will now describe, in spectacular fashion.
After the bass heavy, tone-setting intro that features 9th Wonder’s dense and punchy production that has also been recently favored in Jay-Z’s The Black Album and De La Soul’s The Grind Date, the listener is greeted with the reggae/dub-heavy “Bad Man!" in which Murs plays the heartbreaker card. “3:16" meanwhile, is the only track that doesn’t tell a story but instead is an outlet for Murs to drop some great one-liners in which he proclaims that he “so sick like (he’s) forgetting to eat" and a “verbal martial artist like I’m signed to Shady Records." All this clocks in under 3 minutes that is accentuated by a furious and aggressive beat cut up periodically with a breezy soul sample.
“The Pain", meanwhile is quite possibly one of those few hip-hop tracks in which the narrator proclaims his constant failure to bag women and his struggles to live in a world dominated by playas, hoes, and hedonism. With a slow beat, heavy bass thumping, and a Kanye-like sped-up soul sample, Murs maintains his desire to be “picked up, held tight and kissed" and asks “whats a man to do to get to hold hands with you? Do I talk ***, look hard and stand with my crew?" Although some might find such self-loathing the hip-hop equivalent of The Promise Ring, Alkaline Trio (hence the often despised term “emo-rap") I find this song to be a refreshing and interesting standpoint in the hip-hop world of romance. “Trevor an’ Them" picks up the pace soon after and the short minute and a half track details Murs’ witnessing of an old friend-turned-thug botch a robbery.
As for 9th Wonder, his bright and solid production and penchant for catchy, groove-heavy beats gets its due on tracks like “H-U-S-T-L-E", that is an orgasmic amalgam of bongo rolls, Dre-style bass grooves, and hazy blares of horns. 9th Wonder’s beat-crafting and production is a great compliment to Murs’ strong and confident flow and rhyming. Though his lyrical style recalls Slick Rick and Tupac, the man has the charisma and thick delivery of Ice Cube and the Souls of Mischief. Both Murs’ and 9th Wonder’s talents gel the best on “Walk Like a Man", a 3-part anti-gun/street violence track. The first verse is a basic reflection and philosophical musing over an upbeat funk-heavy groove. The song takes a complete 180-degree turn in the second verse as Murs tells of an incident in which he loses a close friend over a senseless act of violence. With a genuine West Coast bass heavy beat, shimmering piano, and hollow choir vocals, Murs reveals such spectacular details:
“I saw his killer stand up/ he put the guns in his jeans
Saw him wince from the pain as the heat burned his waist/
Then he turned up the block/ and disappeared without a trace/
I remember his face/ but what I remember most
is when I got to my knees and I held my nigga close,"
The final verse of the track is a somber and dirge-pace beat accentuated by faint echoes of gospel musings as Murs details his revenge on the killer and his subsequent remorse for committing such a hasty act of vengeance.
“And This is For…" is the standard conscious, anti-materialist track, but done with a fresh spin but achieved with sparkling soul sample and a ringing guitar lick. It also is worth noting that its probably one of the first tracks I’ve heard in which a black underground hip-hop artist readily admits that his fanbase is mainly white kids and is not fazed by abandonment by his “own people".
Though it is indeed a very concentrated effort, the one major flaw it thus does have is the fact that it is a very short album by hip-hop standards.Though free of skits and interludes, it is only 10 songs and wouldn’t have hurt to have a few more songs. Yet all in all, this is a very strong and profound album that achieves the best of both worlds of hip-hop. Murs it is seems, successfully illustrates himself as quite an individualist in constantly polarizing world of hip-hop between commercial and underground and is definitely worth noting.
Final rating: 4/5
“Trevor an’ Them"
“Walk Like a Man"
“And This is For…"