Music as catharsis has existed since music’s inception. Artists have set the pain that comes with loss to a tune since the concept of music was invented. Hip-Hop music is no stranger to the notion, with numerous albums over the last few decades being released as ways for the rappers to unleash their damaged psyches. But it’s rarely sounded as raw and unvarnished as it has on MURS’ A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable.
Nick “MURS” Carter has been through a lot in the past few years: a divorce, a close friend’s death, a protracted custody battle, and the stillborn birth of a child with his fiancé. It would be understandable if MURS wouldn’t want to touch upon any of those experiences on record. But MURS has never been afraid to show vulnerability on his albums, and he lays it all bare on Strange Journey. He details the pain that he’s suffered and the scars he still possesses. In a way, he does it for no other reason than “because the fans demand it and the label said I should / I put it all into these songs in the hopes it’s understood.”
MURS has described Strange Journey as his most personal album, and that statement rings true. For the album he collaborates with Michael “Seven” Summers, who handles all of the album’s production. The Kansas City based Seven is an in-house producer with Strange Music, the label that MURS is signed to. Seven has spent the majority of his career providing beats to label founder Tech N9ne, as well as non-Strange Music artists like Mac Miller and Insane Clown Posse. On Strange Journey he provides a rich tableau of beats for MURS to communicate his thoughts, ranging through all sort musical styles, but creating a unifying sound.
MURS details his trials and tribulations on “Unimaginable,” a song where he lays out the thesis for much of Strange Journey: “This is not really music, it’s me dealing with my thoughts.” Over a spare acoustic guitar, he struggles to understand why he’s faced all of these hardships, musing, “It's hard to kill the drama when the trauma won’t leave / So if karma does exist I find it hard to believe / ’Cause if you reap what you sow, I didn’t sow these seeds.” Eventually, he resolves that he has to keep pushing forward “even when it felt like God had his foot on my chest” because “life is just a battle in the shadow of death.”
MURS’ bouts with depression and his struggles to find a way to deal with it are a recurring theme throughout the album. On “Melancholy” he describes feeling in between a space of not too high and not too low, as well as working his way through therapy and learning how to deal with taking medication. Things get even more real on the somber “Lo Fi Nights,” where MURS discusses coping with suicidal thoughts. Again, he finds a way to push through and reminds himself, “Remember that you're bigger than the problems that you're facing / So you take ten paces, then turn around and shoot all of your fears in their faces.”
This isn’t to say that Strange Journey is a slog. Mixed in with all the heart-rending true tales of tragedy are other unique stories. MURS has always been one of hip-hop’s truly gifted storytellers, functioning as a mix of Ice Cube and the Fresh Prince. And on this album he continues to craft the types of songs that you don’t hear anywhere else.
For example, “Same Way” concerns the difficult dynamics that can occur when dealing with the family of your spouse. “A Lean Story” is an intricately detailed and highly entertaining tale of the first time MURS took liquid codeine, from purchasing the stuff to dealing with the effects and after-effects of ingesting it before going on stage. “Superhero Pool Party” is a light-hearted and occasionally raunchy tale of comic book and cartoon characters cutting loose. Meanwhile, tracks like “G Lollipops” (featuring Fashawn and Prof) and “Whiskey and Patron” (featuring XV) are straight-up trunk rattling hip-hop that give the album some solid knock.
MURS also describes other facets of his life on Strange Journey. On “Powerful” he describes how militant hip-hop shaped his worldview and was integral to his mental development. He raps, “Ice Cube, Brotha J and Ice T / These are the professors that would set my mind free / ‘Fuck the Police,’ To the East… and ‘Cop Killer’ / These were my textbooks, sorry it was not Thriller / That pop music was filler, no disrespect to Mike / But I was fed up and focused, I was ready to fight.”
The album peaks perhaps with “Celebration,” a moody contemplation on the potency of memories. Here MURS relives the happiness of his younger years, reminiscing on times of smoking good weed, falling in love, and finding happiness through music. His sentiments that “remember what it would feel like / Sometimes it's better than real life” is a poignant observation.
What MURS does on Strange Journey isn’t easy. Artists have long examined heartbreak and tragedy in broad strokes, rarely delving into the massive internal struggles of finding a way to cope. But through what MURS expresses on this album, he’s found a way to push through the many tragedies that surround him. Just as hearing him suffer is harrowing, hearing him find some semblance of peace and happiness is inspiring. It makes Strange Journey one of the “realest” albums I’ve heard in a while. Even with stories of Jean Grey and Wonder Woman making bean dip.
Notable Tracks: “Celebration” | “Powerful” | “Unimaginable” | “Whiskey & Patron”