Instead of a shout-out to his neighborhood or hometown, Murs opens his new record with an intergalactic greeting.
"I use my rocket fuel to travel through the infinite / and this is what I brought to you," raps Murs on "Epic Salutations," a rapid-fire and wildly imaginative lyrical journey into outer space.
It's a song that introduces the themes of Love and Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation—travel, love, inspiration and storytelling that touches on both humor and tragedy—while also serving as a statement of career vindication for a rapper whose path has been marked by a long, yet wholly independent, ascendancy.
"I rarely replicate," Murs raps on "Epic Salutations," and it's way more than just a passing statement.
"I feel it's my duty," he explains. "I've always been a unique person, but I also feel that out of respect for the people who came before me. A lot of rap is still doing what they were doing in the 1990s. When N.W.A. did it, it was new and revolutionary, but to come behind and do the same thing is disrespect to the people who blazed the trail before me."
Born in Los Angeles, the relentlessly creative Murs has lived in Oakland, Tucson, Los Angeles and—for the past two years—Tucson again, where the now-married 33-year-old appreciates the pace, weather, creative energy and grounded attitude of the people.
"When I first came to Tucson in 1997, we performed at (Club) Congress, and I met my best friend. I never thought there would be people into hip hop in Tucson. For some reason, when you're in a big city, you can think that's all there is," he says. "The more I travel, the more I see people in Missoula, Mont., are into the same stuff and just as hip as people in New York City. Every town has its unique energy, but as far as the mentality, kids are up on stuff just the same. And people genuinely all want to enjoy themselves."
Bringing his music to cities and towns off the beaten path has been a hallmark of Murs' career, and something he's stuck with on the current Hip Hop and Love Tour, which makes its last of 50 stops in Tucson.
"The way I was brought into the game with independent hip hop was always to make sure we hit the smaller markets, the secondary markets, but also the tertiary markets," he says. "It's always been fun, and the kids there love me. Chicago is dope, but the kids in Omaha love me, too."
The Hip Hop and Love Tour mixes rapping and DJs with a live band.
"I bring it all in. As I grew up, I got more involved in live music and became a fan of Jack White or Vampire Weekend, and I wanted that element in my show," Murs says. "We're going full at it. I love playing with a band, because they bring so much energy."
The tour—with Tabi Bonney, Ski Beatz and the Senseis, McKenzie Eddy, Da$h and Sean O'Connell—is a BluRoc Records showcase that celebrates Murs' return to the independent world after 2008's Murs for President album on Warner Bros.
"I felt like I got to expand and spread my wings a little bit," he says about being on a major label. "It's like getting to make a movie where you can blow up whatever you want. It was a great experience, but I saw how it affects the creative process. There are so many checks and balances when there's so much money at stake."
Murs joined with BluRoc for the tour, a partnership that quickly expanded into the new album—and working with producer Ski Beatz, whose long list of collaborations includes songs with Jay-Z and Mos Def.
"When I'm working with a different guy on every record, it puts me in a position where I have something to prove, and it brings the best performance out of me," Murs says. "I was looking forward to it, because he's worked with so many different people and styles. I knew we'd get something to make it work."
Murs says he usually writes songs by approaching the beat first, rather than beginning the recording process with a lot of lyrics in hand. That responsive style gives the songs an improvisational freshness, and whatever the sounds conjure in his mind is what the song is about.
"I've always been honest, with an open door into my music," he says. "I wanted to talk about different things, because I am traveling and exploring and want to incorporate different things into my work."
Love and Rockets features odes to love and marriage ("I found my love in the 520"), the flourishing era of West Coast hip hop he loved growing up, international travelogues and the independent spirit in hip hop that he sees as stronger than ever. "67 Cutlass" is a what-if inspired by too many run-ins with police, and "Animal Style" is the tale of two gay high school kids fighting discrimination. A more-accepting society would prevent the story's tragic end.
"I have friends and family who are leading quote-unquote alternative lifestyles, and I can't ask them to come out, but I can be an advocate for gay people, gay teens, and give them someone to talk to," Murs says. "I just hope I'm doing my part to create a more-understanding environment in hip hop. Marriage rights or whatever, we can argue, but people have the right to exist and love who they want to love without being persecuted."
It's yet another atypical rap from Murs, who's worked for 15 years to make his name by following his own path. After his early days of hustling tapes in Oakland, Murs earned accolades through prolific collaborations as a member of the Living Legends crew, with Slug (of Atmosphere) and North Carolina producer 9th Wonder.
After racing around the country on the Hip Hop and Love Tour, Murs plans to get back to his Love and Rockets concept, with two more volumes planned. Years of hard work and underground success have brought him artistic freedom as well as fans, and Murs says he appreciates that technology has made it easier than ever to reach out.
"Music is in a good place now. The artists are finally in control of their own destiny. That's exciting to me, because that's what I've been preaching for years."