He was thinking of a master plan.
For Murs, signing with a major label wasn't about "selling out," and he certainly wasn't about to compromise his art too much. The underground West Coast rapper, an acclaimed independent artist for more than a decade, needed a bigger platform for his witty, richly metaphorical messages of perseverance and uplift.
Warner Bros. Records certainly had the muscle, and last year the earnest artist signed on the dotted line. On Murs for President, his major-label debut released late last month, the rapper wanted to broaden his musical scope.
"The work that changed my life - the Chuck D, the NWA - came through major labels," says Murs, who plays the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington on Saturday night and Bedrock on Sunday night. "If a major label offers me a chance to speak to black people, I will. It's hard to succeed if you're on your own as an independent black rapper. Warner came to me. They're not making me say anything ignorant, so I took the opportunity."
Murs acknowledges that it's been a "different experience," having to answer to label heads about the direction of his music. Growing up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mid-City where his family ran a dry-cleaning business, the rapper has long been used to doing his own thing.
"Nobody in my family ever worked for anybody," says the 30-year-old performer. "It's a strong entrepreneurial spirit I know. It's always in me, a real sense of independence and strong business mind."
Fans of his indie work (especially 2006's Murray's Revenge, an excellent collaboration with North Carolina beatmaker 9th Wonder) may cry foul now that Murs has become a part of "the machine." But beyond expanding his audience, the rapper born Nick Carter wanted to nurture his art in a different atmosphere.
"The making of [ Murs for President ] was different because there were a lot more avenues opened up," says the artist, who talked by phone last week during a tour stop in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I had a bigger budget to work with. I was able to get any names I wanted. Creatively, it opened up my eyes. Sonically, it sounds bigger. The album was mixed better. I'm still learning the business side, though. So in a year maybe I'll be able to tell you if it was a good move."
Murs came of age during the boom of nihilistic West Coast gangsta rap and was influenced by some of the genre's biggest stars. But over the years, his rhymes have often focused on more transcendent matters. Murs for President continues his progressive lyrical stance, from sharply breaking down black history in the United States ("The Science") to exploring the need for healthy relationships in urban America ("Love and Appreciate II"). His delivery, warmed by his clear full voice, never feels preachy. Conversational and often humorous, Murs rides the beats effortlessly as he drops lyrical gems here and there. Granted, he has simplified his flow since his early days. But the approach makes his rhymes even more accessible, which is ideal for his new venture into mainstream hip-hop.
On Murs for President, he reconnected with 9th Wonder and recruited several other producers, including Nottz and will.i.am.
"As far as hip-hop goes, I'm eclectic and well-balanced," Murs says. "9th Wonder is just one aspect of my sound. I wanted to show more sides of me. ... I wanted everything that represented me on the record. I wanted to give a complete picture."
That may partly explain the unevenness of the new album. Though Murs' rhymes are generally engaging, the production is often faceless and dull. Ho-hum tracks ("Road is My Religion" and "Think You Know Me") and flat commercial offerings ("Lookin' Fly" featuring will.i.am) weigh down the album. But when he's backed by superlative arrangements, as on the Scoop Deville-produced "The Science," Murs absolutely shines.
With the marketing power of Warner Bros., Murs hopes to become an alternative to the minstrelsy he sees corrupting today's mainstream hip-hop.
"If I can be on MTV, that's one less spot for gold teeth and luxury things," he says. "That's a spot for some intelligence, something different. Man, no one's making black people look ignorant on TV but ourselves. Imagine if we could do something positive? Now we're getting to the point of making money and not music."
Murs says maybe the spiraling economy will engender some artistic change in the genre.
"Now that we're in the worst economic period of our lifetime, maybe the music will be richer and say something," he says. "I hope so. I sure got something to say."
IF YOU GO
See Murs at the Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. N.E. in Washington, at 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $14. Call 202-388-7625 or go to rockandrollhoteldc.com. Or see the rapper at Bedrock, 401 W. Baltimore St., at 8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12. Call 410-685-7665 or go to www.bedrockbaltimore.com.