“Dope beats, dope rhymes, what more do y’all want?” Phonte once asked, and the question remains a potent one: hip-hop, particularly of the underground variety, turned a more experimental corner around the time of the millennium, and for many, the art of the simply-constructed, plainspoken hip-hop LP fell by the wayside.
The loose-limbed, live-band feel of the Roots; the lush soundscapes and penetrating self-excavation of Kanye West; these are the things that we’ve been conditioned to value in hip-hop. Some folks have even been getting down with the creaky, dank horror-rap of the Odd Future crew. But L.A. rapper and Def Jux compatriot Murs has been following the simple blueprint that the Phonte quote above illustrates for years now – he’s a solid emcee with an ambling, conversational flow, and doesn’t appear to be interested in far-out beats, instead working with the same brushstrokes that Little Brother and Brother Ali have built careers on.
Given its far-out artwork and conceptual-sounding title, one wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that Love & Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation signals a reinvention of sound for Murs, but nope. The album-length collaboration with Ski Beatz simply offers what every Murs record since The End of the Beginning has offered: a series of excellent beats, with proficient, likable raps draped over them. It’s not likely to expand anyone’s musical palette, but that’s okay. It’s a pared-down hip-hop release from a stalwart, consistent emcee.
The downside to another consistent, well-performed Murs album, of course, means that standouts are in short supply. Ski Beatz contributes an excellent set of beats – there’s nothing really flashy afoot, but, like Murs himself, Ski clearly has a handle on what he does well, and his production work fits each song snugly. Ski can summon drama, nostalgia, or good humor with ease; Murs rides all of these beats lithely, smoothly. Producer and emcee sound nicely attuned, which is a step forward from the (comparatively) lackluster Murs For President. “Eazy E” reflects on hood life with rose-colored glasses; it makes a nice companion track with Masta Ace’s excellent “H.O.O.D” from a few years back, both in general feel (soulful, laid-back, wistful) and in the manner that it romanticizes the gang violence and rampant poverty of the narrator’s stomping grounds. “67 Cutlass” hangs a dark crime narrative over a sprightly beat, and its mixture of violence and comedy may mark one of the only times hip-hop is compared to the Coen brothers, both in Murs’ ability to blend tones seamlessly and the sheer cinematic detail of his storytelling. “Hip Hop and Love” paints in the same psychedelic, silky-smooth colors that the best tracks on Common’s Electric Circus boasted, and it’s glorious; props, too, to Murs for closing out his album with “Animal Style”, a heartfelt narrative about the effects of homophobia on the psyche. It’s a fitting epitaph for an album so concerned with love in all of its forms, and feels both timely and remarkably progressive, given Murs’ genre of choice.
Love & Rockets often feels like it’s lagging – the album’s top- and bottom-heavy with its standouts, which causes its midsection to sag a bit. Murs and Ski lock into a nice groove in the record’s second half, but their consistency too often veers into complacency, and so while tracks like “Westside Love” sound nice on their own, they’re never really given the chance to pop. And that, really, is the worst thing you can level against Vol. 1: it’s grooves are nice, the rhymes pleasant and always in the pocket, but it rarely stands out. When it does, though, Murs illustrates just why he’s an unsung hero in the hip-hop game.