Murs’s major label debut, Murs for President, is also the rapper’s first attempt at mainstream appeal, with high-end guests and a neat little reform-candidate platform. He’s here to fix hip-hop by example, piercing tough gangster facades and criticizing the genre’s skewed values system in tight rhymes glittering with $100 words. Yet while this crusader shtick might play better on an indie release, on a major label this is strictly third-party stuff. It doesn’t help that Murs seems more concerned with being affable and conciliatory than making a point, leaving us with a lot of toothless challenges and some drearily pedantic bragging.
This would hardly be a problem if so much focus weren’t spent on stressing the need for change. When Murs aims for genial he snags it easily, especially on “The Science,” a history lesson draped in slinky flutes that makes its points without losing the engaging wit Murs displays when he’s not trying to teach us a lesson. This is the most charming ingredient on Murs for President, offsetting the soapbox homiletics and some weak beats and offering much needed levity in the face of some heady material. It’s about the only thing keeping the album afloat through some rough, worn-out territory, from two songs about life on the road to the four-part suite about relationships that closes the album.
Too often, though, Murs’s charm is scrapped in favor of finger-wagging and outright lecturing about respecting women, reaching out across racial lines, and any number of other things that are relevant but in mainstream hip-hop are like vegetables being forced down our throats. “Part of Me” verges on Afterschool Special territory with its narrative about the accidental gift of an STD, a triteness not helped by a chugging mall-punk anthem chorus. Murs favors apotheosis over humanization on “Think You Know Me,” a character sketch about three apparent gang bangers who are more than what they seem (a RN and church volunteer, an intellectual ex-con who can’t find a job, an artist and devoted father, if you’re curious just how far he takes it). There’s a certain element of self-satisfaction in all of this, and Murs’s refusal to really bare his claws makes him seem all the more self-righteous. The snarky politeness he exhibits in making his arguments is distancing as opposed to pushing for any real dialogue.
Two high profile guest appearances add nothing, with will.i.am blessing us with some half-defrosted production and lyrical gibberish on “Lookin’ Fly” and Snoop Dogg sleepwalking through a personalized gift basket of a verse on “Time Is Now” (which would have functioned the same anywhere else on the album). Snoop’s appearance may seem contradictory considering the album’s anti-gangsta stance, but the old guy has mellowed into such broad appeal that he’s the perfect centrist figure to trot out in a bid for cross-genre unity. The cameo is almost too perfect, and this is why the album doesn’t really work: It feels too calculated, too much like a portfolio, a compiling of previously handled themes that functions as Murs’s application for the conscience of mainstream hip-hop. His campaign may be noble but it’s also naïve, if not misguided; polite discourse is never going to outsell club bangers and a summarizing rehash of backpack-rap talking points does not make Murs for President any easier to enjoy.