[13 September 2007]
When I was a kid, I wondered how certain people could walk through a crowd and seemingly force other people to move to the side. It was like magic, like sorcery, but I couldn’t figure out how it worked. During a visit to New York City, I learned the secret: you have to look straight ahead, not necessarily in an angry way (though that doesn’t hurt), but resolutely and without flinching. I stumbled upon it when I realized this was what made me veer from the path of oncoming pedestrians. I tried it, and it worked. Picture itty bitty 10-year-old Me splitting the moving mass like a cool knife slicing a simmering baked potato.
I mention this because Keith Murray has that look. He wears it on his album covers, from his 1994 debut, The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World to 2003’s He’s Keith Murray and the albums in between (1996’s Enigma, 1998’s It’s a Beautiful Thing). And so it is with Rap-Murr-Phobia. Keith Murray is back on his lyrical grind, and his album cover shows he’s got that look in his eyes again. It’s not really a threatening look (you know how rappers sometimes mean-mug you on the cover, like they’re trying to intimidate you into buying the CD), but that stare of his still makes you wanna get the heck out of his way.
Keith Murray’s stare represents his rap style—it’s in-your-face, straight-ahead raw rap. He’s known for his use of prodigious syllables, as in the new album’s “Nobody Do It Better”: “Keith Murray, the lyrical Hannibal, flow cannibal / Animalistic tough guy, manhandle you”. I imagine Murray’s most celebrated single, “The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World”, is in a heated race against Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” to see which one can irritate the most English grammar and literature teachers. I think Alanis remains in the lead; I’m still hearing people say, “Most of that stuff in her song is annoying, but not ‘ironic’!”
Whether you like him or not, Keith Murray is a workhorse, a consummate battler. He gets his lyrics in gear and off he goes, inexorably, in single-minded fashion, on his mission to crush every beat, microphone, and emcee within range of his serrated vocals. It’s not always flashy, and probably not nearly as complicated as we (fans, word-slingers, whoever) make it out to be, but we can usually expect him to get the job done.
Now, the title, “Rap-Murr-Phobia”. I know, some people are like, “What the hell?” but the subtitle “The Fear of Real Hip-Hop” should explain things. It’s been 13 years since his debut. During this time, he’s released solo albums and brought fire to plenty of plum guest spots. Aside from his run-ins with the legal system, Murray’s been puttin’ in work, as we like to say, so there’s a plausible connection between his relative longevity and “real hip-hop”. But then that begs the question, “Why not just call it ‘The Fear of Real Hip-Hop’?” I don’t know, I didn’t title the album (dang, back up offa me, can a brotha get some elbow room up in here?), but this is the same dude who’s done songs called “Dip Dip Di”, “Bom Bom Zee”, and “Da Ba Dunk Song”. Neither the album title, nor its single “Weeble Wobble”, should be a surprise. Besides, “Rap-Murr-Phobia” sounds clinical, more like a diagnosis of a problem (Wack-rapper-phobia, maybe?), to which Murray gives us his album as a remedy. It’s the all-day, non-snitching, anti-rhyme-jackin’, raw rap makin’, mary jane puffin’, bomb diggity punchline-havin’, Def-Squad-affiliated-LP, so-you-can-chill medicine (from Koch, of course).
The album’s intro skit, “Walk Up”, plays into the motif, with Murray and company ringing a doorbell, and when the unsuspecting person answers, Murray blows him away! Like, Ka-blow! Then comes the first song (“Da F*ckery”). Hardcore, right? True, but the word on hip-hop, at least among the naysayers, has always been that rap infiltrates our homes and the minds of our youth like a demon on the TV show Supernatural. Murray’s intro might be dramatizing that fear. Or Murray might be saying “real hip-hop” is mind blowing. Since he’s plunking this album down in the middle of the ongoing debate over rap lyrics, maybe he’s having fun with the controversy. Or maybe he just gets a kick out of blowin’ muthaf*ckas away on a rap skit. I can’t hate on him for that. I get the same kick out of the Grand Theft Auto and Hitman videogames.
Could this album be the antidote to “commercial rap” or a return to the glory of the EPMD-L.O.D.-Def Squad discography? Nah, it ain’t that good; but it’s not that bad either. It’s pretty decent, actually. With all the talk of Keith Murray’s volatile temperament, people tend to forget about his sense of humor on wax. Probably because Keith Murray says the illest sh*t with the most straightest face. Rap-Murr-Phobia has some damn funny moments. What? You don’t think Rap-Murr-Phobia is a funny title?
All right, how about “Weeble Wobble”, the punchy flipside of UK emcee Jonny Virgo’s anti-bender anthem “Devil’s Brew”. In “Weeble Wobble”, Murray says, “I might bug out like R. Kelly at the Garden”. Funny, right? See, a few years ago, R. Kelly and Jay-Z ended their “Best of Both Worlds” tour after R. Kelly had an episode at Madison Square Garden. In Kelly’s defense, though, he said he left the show because he thought some people in the audience were waving guns at him. I probably would’ve left too if I thought someone was putting a red dot on my forehead, whether it was true or not. But, shucks. I guess the line’s not as funny if I have to explain it.
All right, all right. What about the one-liners in the rump shakin’ Tyrese-&-Junior-assisted “Nobody Do It Better”? Murray asserts, “[I’ll] turn your six-pack into barbecue rib tips”. You don’t think he’s really gonna do that, do you? Maybe the better question is, “How exactly would someone go about doing that?” At any rate, it’s exaggeration. In the same song, there’s a less graphic example of his twisted humor, when he says, “You’ll get done away like Faye”. Yeah, boy, done-away. As in “Dunaway”, son. Like Faye Dunaway. The actress. That’s butter, baby.
There’s also “Do”, Keith Murray’s hustlin’ story, in which he goes from running a small-time drug operation in his mama’s kitchen to gaining respect in the hustlin’ game. “Cookin’ crack in the microwave,” he rhymes, “I found out the radiation made the fiends go more crazed”. These cracky tales might seem odd, considering the “I’m not smokin’ crack” line, way back when in “The Most Beautifullest Thing”, but hey, he’s not the user on Rap-Murr-Phobia, he’s the seller. That makes a big, big difference (especially for sentencing purposes). That debut album of his contained more than a puff or two, though it wasn’t anything as hardcore as what’s described in “Do”. If you don’t believe me, go back and listen to “Herb Is Pumpin’” and “Get Lifted”, both of which have sounded so much fresher to me in the last few years.
However, the better connection is Murray’s storytelling (comparable to his “Escapism” track from the debut), and his attention to detail (then and now). His work on “Do” reminds me of Ghostface, except less grimy and more of a joyride. Crack stories aren’t supposed to prompt laughter, I know. Neither is a song called “WhatMakeaN*ggaThinkDat” (the words in the title are really all mashed up like that, and the song itself has a cadence similar to Ice Cube’s “Go to Church”). Sorry about liking some of these songs, my community-activist friends. I couldn’t help myself.
Then there’s the album closer, “Late Night”, a spooky Dr. Dre-sounding affair that turns into a story of revenge, get back, and retaliation. The guest rappers (Ming Bolla, Bosie, Ryze, and the L.O.D. crew) partake in the drama of sniffing out (and then snuffing out) a snitch, their rhyming lines often operating as conversation (similar to Dre, Nas, and AZ on the Firm’s “Phone Tap”, or Kanye West, Talib Kweli, and Common on The College Dropout‘s “Get Em High”). And boy is it brutal, leading to a body being chopped up, complete with chainsaw sound effects and e’erythang!
I half expected a Donnie Brasco sample or skit to follow, like the one in the movie after Sonny Black (Michael Madsen) and his crew have finished chopping up their rivals (with rusty-looking saws!) and “Lefty” (Al Pacino) tells undercover agent “Donnie Brasco” (Johnny Depp) while the two of them are driving home: “Nicky was a rat because Sonny Black says he was a rat…Who am I? I’m a spoke on the wheel. And so was he. And so are you…Quit ridin’ the f*ckin’ brake.” That would’ve been a fly sample, ya know?
The random part about “Late Night” is how it follows two tracks for and about the ladies. One, “Never Did Sh*t”, features Unique and Murray in a thumping gender face-off that plays like the hip-hop version of the 1973 showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The other, the Junior-on-hooks “Something like a Model”, finds Murray curiously in mack mode, rockin’ a few pickup lines for the ladies that I never could get to work for me in real life. If you say, “You’re a tall glass of ice tea—just my flavor,” you can pretty much expect a sista to give you a fake phone number in response.
The crew collaborations (“U Ain’t Nobody”, “We Ridin’”) don’t hit the spot anywhere near as well as “How’s That” from Beautifullest, or the much-lauded remix of LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya” (featuring Murray, Prodigy, Fat Joe, and Foxy Brown). But it’s good to get a verse from Erick “the green-eyed bandit” Sermon anyhow. Speaking of which, Sermon handles the lion’s share of the production here, and there are spots where the beats are rather generic and redundant—a remark I would have considered hip-hop blasphemy back in the day (I’m still expecting the lightning to strike my laptop).
Truthfully, it’s only when Keith Murray tries to act serious about his hyperbole that I have a tough time with the record. I’m still not convinced his style is built for songs with smooth R&B hooks, but he’s pretty much holding his own on Rap-Murr-Phobia, even alongside potentially spotlight-stealing cameos from big personalities like Method Man and Redman. And that’s where we are with Keith Murray at present. Rap-Murr-Phobia isn’t a musical triumph, nor is it terrible. But it is entertaining. Yep, even the friggin’ skits.