April 20, 2021

My Gut Reaction: Keith Murray - Puff Puff Pass (May 13, 2008)

In honor of today being 4/20, here’s a write-up with an album title I absolutely did not time to the national smoker’s holiday – when you’ve done this as long as I have, coincidences become more and more common.

Long Island native Keith “Keith Murray” Murray has managed to hit both massive highs and comically shameful lows during his relatively short time within our chosen culture. A natural wordsmith with a hair trigger temper, the emcee once known as Keefy Keef quickly found a home with Erick Sermon’s Def Squad camp, releasing at least two, if not three, full-length projects that hip hop heads of a certain age hold in very high regard (for my money, Enigma, his sophomore effort, is leaps and bounds above his debut, The Most Beautifullest Thing In This World, but that’s mostly because I don’t really care for the title track on his freshman outing, and I realize I’m in the minority there), along with multiple winning guest verses alongside the likes of LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige, Busta Rhymes, UGK, Too $hort, and of course his Def Quad brethren Redman, Mally G, and Sermon himself.

A brief stint in prison for attacking a man with a barstool (a charge he maintains his innocence against) put an abrupt hold on the man’s career in the music industry – his third album, It’s A Beautiful Thing, was released during his incarceration, but faltered due to lack of promotion for obvious reasons. Upon his release in 2001, he signed on with his groupmate Redman’s label Def Jam Records for He’s Keith Murray, another project that the House That LL Cool J Built failed to properly market. After that, Keith Murray dropped into the underground scene, releasing albums for relatively unknown labels while doing just enough to keep himself active within the genre.

2008 was a weirdly busy year for the man, but probably not for the right reasons. That year saw two different Keith Murray solo projects emerge from the shadows: Intellectual Violence and Puff Puff Pass, released within a month of one another that spring. However, Puff Puff Pass, technically our host's seventh full-length album, recycles so many of the lyrics and ideas from Intellectual Violence that it’s fair to say that the label that distributed the subject of today’s post, Siccness.net, had already bought the performances off of an associate of Murray’s and released the music after Murray attempted to reclaim his own words with Intellectual Violence. However it all went down, I wasn’t following Murray’s career at the time that Intellectual Violence dropped, so I wasn’t suddenly going to pick his catalog back up a fucking month later, so this is still all brand new to me. (For the record, Siccness.net is a label based in the Bay Area specializing in distributing projects from rappers past their major-label prime, similar to Germany’s Smoke On Records.)

Puff Puff Pass, named after Murray’s apparent penchant for smoking that loud, follows in the same path as its spiritual predecessor in that the production is provided by unknown participants who you’ve likely never heard of. At this point in Murray’s career, Erick Sermon’s beats must have been cost-prohibitive for his budget, as was requesting guest spots from his more famous friends (Sermon and Redman appeared on Intellectual Violence, but that song was originally released as a Reggie Noble original, so). There is absolutely no Def Squad involvement on Puff Puff Pass – hell, the fact that Sermon listed it on the Def Squad Bandcamp page is surprising in and of itself. There are two guests that pop up here who are a bit of a shock, but otherwise Puff Puff Pass appears to be a Keith Murray album that he had no apparent input with, where the folks who handled the production and the cameos also pulled all of the strings behind the scenes.

Shit, if you told me that Keith Murray has no idea that this project even exists I’d believe you without any follow-up questions asked.

Immediately I’m confronted with the reason I stopped following Keith Murray’s catalog, and it’s not (solely) because he seemed to divest himself of the Def Squad camp – our host sounds like he’s lost his spark, his smile, his will to live on album opener “I Get It In.” It isn’t because he’s aged or anything – a lot of artists sound noticeably older without losing a step. No, Murray sounds utterly disinterested in his work, delivering weak threats and lazy shit-talk as though he needed to quickly churn out twelve songs in order to pay the light bill for that month. There’s no hunger, no appreciation of the culture or artform, nothing: “I Get It In” is simply a subpar performance, on par with Bruce Willis’s current career trajectory, as it is very easy to tell that he just does not give a shit in his modern-day direct-to-streaming roles. (I mean, he doesn’t even receive top billing anymore. It’s clear he’s only working for the money at this point.) Which is too bad, since the production here from Jaz (not Jaz-O, confusingly) isn’t that bad – it’s elementary boom bap-lite, but there’s actual thought and effort to be found in the drum selection, the sample placement, and the melody, something that you just cannot say about Keith Murray’s three verses. This is going to go great, you two!

You see, kids, this is why you shouldn’t immediately write something off just because of a bad experience – “Go Der” is actually pretty good. It isn’t great, obviously, but it has a very strong chance at being the best song from this particular segment of Keith Murray’s career, which isn’t nothing. The Batkave’s instrumental is pretty slick, smooth but head-noddingly so, and our host’s flow manages to recapture a tiny but if the excitement he must have felt when Keefy Keef was first discovered by EPMD. Through his three verses, Murray fires off boasts-n-bullshit, threatens to send an adversary “stratisophic” (ah, I’d missed Keith Murray’s malapropisms, even the ones he’s used elsewhere), and even briefly dredges up some past beef, using a fictional offer to join up with 50 Cent’s G-Unit (which would never happen, but whatever) as an excuse to talk about smacking the late Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) back in the day. I can respect the petty, and I can groove to “Go Der”, as it’s entertaining as hell. No, seriously. Give it a spin. Right now. Don’t make me turn this car around.

With a song title that would be any editor’s nightmare (I get it, it’s onomatopoeia, but even still, that spelling is offensive as fuck), “Wit Da Bloahw” rides a surprisingly strong Cricet instrumental that plays like the love child of Rick Rock and Dr. Dre, with gunshots (the titular “bloahw”, duh) perforating its atmosphere as a way to awaken the listener. This track is just silly, in that it features two verses from our host that are singularly focused on talking all of the shit, with a female guest popping up in the background, especially during the hook, questioning Murray’s motives every step of the way. Keith doesn’t drown in the aural lake, but he also doesn’t do all that much to keep his head above water, so I wouldn’t expect much here – the beat being pretty interesting is one thing, but I still require a decent performance in order for the song ever to be considered “good”.

LMAO this song is fucking terrible. Its very existence is questionable – seriously, who in the finger-licking hell likes hearing Keith Murray rap-flirting with the opposite sex? We’re here for the shit-talking, the multi-syllabic threats, the recitation of skills lifted from a resume, not to hear the guy weakly acknowledge that women happen to exist in the world. “New York Girl” is a complete and utter dud where the The Batkave instrumental tortured the listener almost as much as our host’s own bars, which are apathetically delivered as though even he doesn’t quite understand why he wrote these words. Also not helping matters: the definition of a “New York Girl” is never provided, so crooner Tommy Redding’s hook makes no fucking sense – what makes her “type” specific to the Big Apple? Is she especially headstrong, or driven, or successful, or wishy-washy, or fashion-deficient, or does she just like folding her pizza slices? What the fuck is it, man? I demand my three minutes back, Keith.

“Fuck that beef shit / That shit is played out,” says our host, unconvincingly, on “In The Rain”, a Batkave-produced “serious” song that features a somber, sober Keith Murray sounding like life is just another burden for him to bear. It isn’t a terrible performance, however – Murray is clear and level-headed as he describes various sad events that have happened in his life, such as his time spent in prison and around peers in the rap game who were later murdered. (Whether he’s just recycling his memories or the actual lyrics from previous songs, though, I haven’t checked.) “In The Rain” is structured as a legitimate song, the verses broken up by a hook from guest Rachel Evans that sounds bland, but fine, and the verse from Smigg Dirty wasn’t that bad, following the same tone as our host. It’s a bummer to sit through, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a spin.

This song was dumb. I’m sorry, I know you two keep coming back to HHID for more pointed, loquacious commentary, but “The World” doesn’t deserve it – it’s just dumb. Jaz had the bright idea to sell our host an instrumental that plays at a much slower pace than he’s used to, and Keith Murray overcompensates by rapping so fucking lethargically that he sounds like a middle school student with stage fright reading from cue cards written up by someone who doesn’t understand the rhythm of a rap verse. His performance is godawful on “The World”, his lackadaisical threats to break your jaw and steal your girl failing because you just won’t believe he’s capable of pulling either off. He doesn’t sound calm and measured her e- he’s bored and boring. Jaz’s beat doesn’t help with the entertainment value, either: the sample that gives “The World” its title is played so low in the mix that it’s practically indistinguishable from the “music”, which I put in quotes because even that categorization is questionable. What the fuck, man?

When Keith Murray left prison back in 2001, he clearly had Something To Say about his experience. Not a lot of something, mind you – I’m almost ninety-nine percent certain that “I Remember” lifts his bars from Intellectual Violence’s “Pen Life” wholesale. (I can’t be bothered to pull that album out to check, though – I want to say that Puff Puff Pass should be able to stand on its own, and as such, any such comparison to Murray’s prior albums is unfair in nature, even if the lyrics are recognizably recycled, but the truth is, I’m lazy and I don’t wanna.) “I Remember” may be a retread, but it still mostly works due to our host’s writing, as he raps with conviction and intimate knowledge of the subject matter, and Jaz’s instrumental keeps things moving engagingly enough. S5’s guest verse also wasn’t bad, although you’re here for Keith Murray and Keith Murray alone, and he’s aware of that fact. One could certainly do a lot worse than “I Remember”.

More recycled bars from our host, this time taken from “U Ain’t No Gangsta” off of Intellectual Violence, which makes this track’s title appear to be even more generic than usual. (And don’t get me started on how “U Ain’t No Gangsta” essentially reuses a cameo Murray made on EPMD’s “They Tell Me”.) It doesn’t help that Keith’s lack of actual participation on “Gangsta” is painfully obvious – his bars don’t quite mesh with Batkave’s production, and his final verse is even blatantly interrupted by guest rapper Smigg Dirty, who I can almost guarantee Murray has bever actually met. A piss-poor excuse for a “rap song” no matter how you slice it. No matter how you feel about the man’s work, Keith Murray certainly deserves better than this.

We finally receive a legitimate weed song on Puff Puff Pass, but it never fully gels. It isn’t Keith Murray’s fault, of course – this is the guy who once brought us “Get Lifted” and “Herb Is Pumpin’”, after all, so he knows of what he speaks. No, my biggest issue here was with Jaz’s instrumental, which aims for an inexplicably funky feel rather than something correlating with smoking out. Jaz also cribs vocal samples from Method Man and Redman’s “How High” (something they absolutely couldn't have ever been compensated for), which only exacerbates the underlying concerns here by inviting a direct comparison between Keith Murray’s “I Need That” and a classic stoner jam from his friends, and “I Need That” cannot stand up to that level of scrutiny. Murray sounds engaged with the material, but it isn’t enough, honestly.

Jaz’s boom bap instrumental, which is quite good, comes equipped with DJ Premier-esque scratching that elevates the overall feel of the track, a welcome surprise considering the utter bullshit we’ve had to put up with during the past few tracks. “No Matter Where U Be” isn’t a perfect song, by which I mean it doesn’t appear to have been compiled properly, since the endings of Keith’s verses are nudged out of the way in favor of the sung hook from the producer (which, in all fairness, isn’t bad), but the rest of our host’s bars sound sharp over the musical backing. “No Matter Where U Be” contains an energy missing from a lot of Puff Puff Pass, and Murray’s performance reacts to that energy by matching it beat for beat, rendering this a mostly enjoyable experience. Who knew?

Um… yeah. This is a song that, sadly, exists. “Put Ya Hands Up“ is likely a direct result of Keith Murray listening to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Notorious Thugs” and thinking to himself, “Hey, I want one of those!”, even going so far as to invite two members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to the studio to contribute. The problem, as it stands with many Bone (or Twista, or (insert speed-rap specialist’s name here)) collaborators, is that the artist tends to miss the point, latching on to but one aspect of his guest’s style (ninety-nine percent of the time it’s the speed-rappiness of it all, and that’s an official statistic, tested by science and everything) without ever acknowledging how everything Bone Thugs brought to the table accounted for their success. (The group’s name has the word “harmony” in it, for fuck’s sake.) “Put Ya Hands Up” features Keith Murray rappity rap rap rapping really quickly, which I never wanted nor needed to hear, did you?, his altered flow eschewing depth, meaning, and even audience engagement just so our host could prove to himself that he could do what Bone does if he wanted to… and then both Bizzy and Layzie Bone crush him with their patented style anyway, and their verses suck, so just imagine how terrible our host sounds here. Guest Tommy Redding returns to provide a horny-as-hell hook that doesn’t fit these proceedings at all. It’s just, like… why? Just why?

The grand finale of Puff Puff Pass is the Batkave-produced “Make You Angel”, a closer where Keith Murray threatens to murder you specifically – yes, you, or at least that’s what he told me in confidence. Recycled lyrics abound – Murray’s final verse lifts from Intellectual Violence’s “U Ain’t No Gangsta”, apparently the most eco-friendly song in Murray’s catalog given how often he reuses the material. Our host’s aggressive side is in full force here, as he teases his enemies with a combination of violent acts and spittle (which, in the days of COVID, is a weapon all by itself). Guest S5 contributes a verse so that “Make You Angel” isn’t entirely comprised of 100% recycled material, and it isn’t bad so much as it is unmemorable, as is the instrumental, which will wake you up, but won’t keep you in a conscious state. What better way for a disjointed Keith Murray project to end than with this kind of nonsense, eh?

THE LAST WORD: Surprisingly, Puff Puff Pass isn’t the complete write-off that I had expected, thanks to some production choices that were better than this project ever deserved. Seriously, a few of the beats on here are fucking great. But they likely weren’t produced with Keith Murray in mind, which ultimately tanks the tracks anyway, since he is the star attraction and all. Murray’s performances throughout Puff Puff Pass sound tired and groggy, less like the fiery shit-talker who would be the first to throw a punch in any scrap you’d find yourself in and more like a dude reading from his notebook recording single takes in an effort to get this shit over with, and that lack of enthusiasm is contagious. I don’t quite understand why he drifted away from Sermon and the Squad back in the mid-to-late 2000’s, but the man simply isn’t capable of doing this shit on his own: his choices are almost always questionable, and his ear for beats that suit him is, frankly, shit. The Keith Murray heard on Puff Puff Pass is a pale facsimile of the man he once was, and you can sort-of hear him realize that all throughout the project, as even he seems to be cognizant to the fact that he isn’t putting out his best work. Under most circumstances, an album such as Puff Puff Pass would mark the death of someone’s career, the moment when it’s clear that they just aren’t worth following anymore. Had it not been for the Erick Sermon lifeline, this likely would have been Murray’s final album, as he would have been forced to work as a sales associate at Best Buy in order to make ends meet.

I know I wrote that some of the beats are flames, but that seriously isn’t a good enough reason for any of you to seek this one out. Step over it like so much dogshit and keep it moving.


The Keith Murray story continues here.

1 comment:

  1. looks disgusting. Glad I can read about it and don't need to listen to it.