To the casual hip-hop fan, a live show from an artist with a Definitive Jux connection can feel like an unguided tour into the protean shadow-world of backpack hip-hop. Even though Murs parted ways with El-P's record label and moved to Warner Bros. on 2008's Murs for President, his 1990s work with L.A.'s hallowed Living Legends crew and his years in the Def Jux stable mean that he carries some serious credibility with hard-core fans of independent rap. And like most Def Jux graduates, Murs boasts a few proper studio albums and an avalanche of collaborations, mixtapes, one-offs, EPs and other rap flotsam to keep up with — the truly devoted must designate wings of their houses to prevent the stacks of discs from swallowing their living rooms. "Oh, really. You don't have FELT 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez?" With digital mixtapes propagating like well-fed fruit flies these days, one wonders if "hip-hop head" won't become a full-time career in the near future.
After a couple of competent opening acts and a galvanizing solo set from Sick Jacken of the Latin supergroup Psycho Realm, Murs took the stage for the second time that night — he forewent the usual "are they really here?" mystique of the headliner to wander out during Sick Jacken's set and deliver a few rapid-fire verses over one of their collaboration tracks. Live, Murs comes across every bit the effortless technician that his records indicate: intricate without being verbose, formidable in his rhythmic command without resorting to thesaurus-plumbing vocab exercises to show off his flow.
Unlike many of his peers, he's also not afraid to admit that he's having fun along the way. A few times, he punctuated his choruses by welling up his enthusiasm into leaping, hair-metal-worthy Saigon kicks like hip-hop's own iteration of David Lee Roth, and on "Lookin' Fly" from Murs for President, he had much of the audience flapping their arms along with a repetitive bird-dive motion that only Murs could make seem socially acceptable. Throughout the show, he leaned heavily on his acclaimed 2004 record with producer 9th Wonder, 3:16: The 9th Edition, for the night's best moments, pulling on hardened hip-hop heartstrings with the lonely late-night soul-search of "The Pain" and skewering his less-cerebral competitors and their mindless gangsta glorification on "3:16."
Still, the many obligatory and unwelcome detours into Murs's new album with 9th Wonder, April's lackluster Fornever (Smc Recordings), tended to dull the momentum and portray the otherwise vibrant Murs as a potentially post-prime rapper. On Fornever, Murs's straightforward candor often seems to devolve into banality ("Cigarettes & Liquor," "The Lick") or, even worse, the insular cluelessness of a minor celebrity. At Wednesday's show, he tried to turn "Vikki Veil," Fornever's tear-sodden tale of heartbreak at the hands of a porn star, into some sort of everyman's relationship parable, even going so far as to deliver a canned call-and-response to rally the testosterone troops: "Don't ever let your dick pick who you fall in love with!" Yes, thank you, Murs. We'll surely approach adult film actresses with more caution going forward.
Despite the weakness of the material from his more recent releases and the disappointing absence of cuts from his phenomenal first album End of The Beginning, Wednesday's show reinforced Murs's reputation as a hard-working, charming and occasionally brilliant emcee. However, it also raised questions about his ongoing relevance in the underground rap scene: after two recent releases of lukewarm reputation, does he have more to offer than a couple of rock-solid early albums, a wealth of cred and a wacky set of dreads? If Wednesday's show proved anything, though, it's that Murs can only follow his own muse, regardless of whether it makes sense to the rest of us. After all, who else would end a show on a rainy night in Chicago with a streetwise paean to sunny California called "L.A."?
(Photos by John Brunner)