[15 August 2013]
Let’s allow ourselves a bit of common knowledge before trying to figure out whether The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me has any worth: Making an album about race has to be stupefyingly arduous mentally at some point in the process. Anyone who bothers to push themselves as hard as Murs and Darryl Jenifer (Sacha Jenkins of Ego Trip magazine joins as guitarist and producer) tried to push themselves here for just a song tends to earn some ‘conscious’ credit, let alone if there’s an entire album.
Now try throwing the melding of hardcore punk and hip-hop on top of that, a’la sections of Mos Def’s The New Danger or, I suppose, Death Grips (this is not that, however) and it’s hard to imagine how far outside the box one’s mind might wander. However, we also have to accept that these boundless boxes tend to arrive at our doorsteps as conspicuously rectangular as any regular old box. In fact, they tend to be a tad thinner, less durable than something less socially or morally ambitious; The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me joins the long list of attempts to cross the racial divide through song that proves these rules.
At their best, White Mandingos find ways to use their strengths in less haughty pursuits to prop up somewhat tried topics. One of this album’s biggest successes, single “My First White Girl”, gets its feeling across not because of controversial couplets like “I say ‘you white bitch!’ and she cum quicker” but because the band lays out out a droney, vaguely pop field of somewhat ambient space over which Murs gets into storytelling mode, long one of his most valuable assets.
But it’s also worth noting that the song is only two minutes long, and it only takes a couple of listens before attempting to rationalize the More You Know PSAs like “She told me, don’t believe the white lies / My dick was no bigger than the white guys” as great lyrics fades into knowing nods that The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me rarely feels as adult and aware of the world as it probably should.
One of the biggest flaws with the album seems to be the decision to turn Murs into a character, Tyrone White, who hails from the Polo Grounds of Harlem. By detaching Murs from his nerdy, well established profile and asking him to tackle these issues through the lens of an imagined project resident 3,000 miles away, I might argue, blunts his ability to get at these subjects in any personable way.
“Black-n-White” finds him complaining about being essentially grey, a black guy who acts too white to be black, too black to be white. It’s not Macklemore’s “Same Love”-levels of cheese, but it’s hard to listen to stuff like “Y’all can all open up your white teeth and eat a black dick” more than once without worrying Murs is losing the plot in his attempt to create the fiction and having to stoop to disappointing sweet nothings like that time and time throughout the album.
It’s a shame because the band portion of this thing tends to be pretty good, if not awesome. Murs’ delivery happens to be pretty damn great for a punk band that plays hip-hop beats, and he even makes a Minor Threat cover one of the album’s crowning achievements, while the music has become pretty memorable, especially the last few songs. This isn’t always for great reasons - the sing-along chorus on “Too Late” feels air-dropped in from a early-2000s nü-metal ballad - but it does display a natural chemistry between the bandmates that gives the impression a live show might be the way to listen to these guys.
Still, for all it’s surface level intrigue The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me (I feel if I don’t mention the 1994 Master P original somewhere I’ll have done a disservice to rap geeks, so there it was) doesn’t truly shed a light on anything and it doesn’t really confound the ears in the way I’m sure it was intended.
If you were a fan of the Black Jack Johnson experiment, and I mostly was, then I can’t say with full conviction that The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me isn’t a worthwhile experience. But if you decidedly weren’t a fan of Mos Def’s punk phase, I’d be very, very cautious about coming into this White Mandingos project with any urgency. Much like skin color itself, this album only deals with the surface without really digging into what makes the various issues addressed throughout the album such a national conversation behind closed doors.