Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Murs - Captain California Review

I remember the days of my backpack youth fondly. How I came to enjoy underground Hip-Hop artists is beyond me, but this era, fueled by bi-annual, CD-burned playlists sent to my cousin, helped to curate a grounded appreciation for music by the time I moved on. With random songs found in random places, the actual adoration I had of these artists was ill-formed, selectively choosing to have a song or two represent the entire breadth of their work. A naive adolescent clinging to the first stages of a musical superiority complex, believing these wordsmiths to be the cream of the crop, transitioning to albums as a whole was the only way for me to discover the truth. Overused topics, handheld lyrics, and regressive instrumentation aren't the ingredients needed for creating an impressive work. On one song? Maybe. On a dozen or more? No way. That was the case for many, with Murs just another of the bunch. A pivotal piece of the mega-group Living Legends, the LA native is only one of few left currently making music. Garnering some notoriety in recent months for rapping for over 24 hours straight, a feat no cynicism on my behalf could not be impressed by, Murs has returned for his 10th studio LP, Captain California.

As far as smart business ventures go, with the 2000's version of underground Hip-Hop quickly falling by the wayside, Murs decided, in 2014, to sign with Strange Music. Led and controlled by head honcho Tech N9ne, another backpacker emcee that could be added to my aforementioned list, the record label is seen by many as the last bastion for dying rappers clinging to a false hope of 'real' Hip-Hop. Strange Music is bolstered by an intensely dedicated fanbase, one that made Murs' 2014 collaboration !MursDay!, and his 2015 effort Have A Nice Life his most commercially successful yet. However, like many artists found on Strange Music, the musical quality wasn't quite there. Admittedly so, it wasn't even strange. At least Tech N9ne can still clutch that ideology by the throat. Murs, really, is just your prototypical West Coast rapper, who, for the most part, just likes rapping. Rarely impressive, stuck on perennial cruise control, his latest effort is more of the same. Tongue-in-cheek stories mingling with those delegating the acts of public morality, Captain California often finds its lead careless about the results of his own album, despite outro 'Wanna Be High' appearing as if success has been written.

Your appreciation of Captain California will all depend on the mindset you're in when 'Lemon Juice' begins.  Do you appreciate straight-laced storytelling that evokes a response, but doesn't say anything new? Then this album's for you. Much like those playlists I grew up creating, no song here feels attached to another. They're segmented stories that abruptly jump from street corner rap battles to gushy melodramas to police brutality. I'm not even being selective here, that's quite literally the topics of Captain California's first three songs. 'Lemon Juice' finds Murs and Curtiss King dissing each other whilst flexing in the hopes of winning the girl, 'Shakespeare On The Low' foretells a modern day Shakespearean sonnet, and 'GBKW' conflates the many issues surrounding shoot first mentality. Oh, and that last track stands for God Bless Kanye West by the way, cause why not shoehorn a famous name in for attention-sake. The jarring narrative transitions make it difficult, if not impossible, to string along a single idea this LP wants to promote. In fact, Murs is so head-over-heels with storytelling here that reality becomes tangled in fantasy, causing every track to feel less critical and consequential.

For the rapper, this comes in handy when deflections for potential hypocrisies come into play, and they most certainly do. While certain songs represent the West Coast Hip-Hop lifestyle quite harmlessly, like 'Summer,' 'One Uh Those Days,' or 'Animals Damnit,' others subject themselves to scrutiny the moment Murs tries to offset their very existence. This begins immediately, with the rapper calling out "emo Drake wannabes" on 'Lemon Juice,' then going on to define exactly that on the ensuing song. Then there's the romantic songs, which, even if it weren't for the confusion in regards to intent, would still be Captain California's worst material. However, looking over the spectrum, the fact a song about worshipping his significant other ('1000 Suns') can be found on the same album as one where cheating is taken as a comedic act ('Ay Caramba') is tasteless, to say the least. Throw 'Another Round' in as well, where overwhelming sexual fodder ends in the nice guy not getting what he wants, and you've got an artist constantly tripping over himself. But then again, is it all verbatim in regards to Murs' life? Few cuts, like 'Colossus,' clearly aren't, so should these be neglected too? A subjective question to ponder.

While a few of Murs' stories uphold enough interest, either genuinely or morbidly, to prevent certain songs from drowning, few succeed on the basis of production. Like many of his songs in years past, or any from his Living Legends collective, the beats are as stale and lifeless as one could possibly imagine. For many of these tracks, the production is used as a placemat for Murs to step on. They offer no substance, and don't even hide the fact they're not trying to do something new. While there's enough variety to not accuse Captain California of being repetitive, they all align to the respective tone their track takes. 'Colossus' is aggressive, 'Another Round' is sensual, '1000 Suns' is bright, 'G Is For Gentrify' is conscious, 'Wanna Be High' is conclusive. The story always matches the production, the production always matches the story. In a musical sense, Captain California is begrudgingly safe. And while a few efforts do succeed ('G Is For Gentrify' is my all-around favorite), too many either merely stay the course, or fall back in line. At this stage in his career, it's clear Murs is just glad to still be around. He's certainly not the captain of California, nor has he ever been, but if happiness defines his lifestyle, a lousy album isn't all that damning.

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