Okay, I’m going to walk you all through the strange series of events that led me to wanting to cover this record. As many of you know I’m a big fan of Shura, whose debut album last year Nothing’s Real was one of my favourite records of 2016, easily, and when I saw she was going to be featured on an upcoming project from a British DJ named Mura Masa, I was really curious and excited on what she would bring to the table. It’s the stage name for Alex Crossan, who may have started off in punk pivoted towards the sleeker, trap and tropical house-leaning sounds that have been popular recently, and once he got signed to a major label he started pulling together a murder’s row of guests that included Charli XCX, A$AP Rocky, and even Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz… but Shura’s collaboration was nowhere to be seen.
And I have to admit, I found this pretty frustrating, as I’m not normally the type to seek out this style of music if I don’t see strong names on the tracklist – I mean, you kept a song with Desiigner, who I’m fairly certain will never have a stable career in the near future, and you pitched the Shura song after filming a video for it and everything? Maybe it was because that single was released back in October of 2015 in order to drive buzz, but still, it struck me as a misspent opportunity. But hey, it was on my schedule this long and it got to the top, and the reviews have been decent, so what did we get from this self-titled record?
Honestly, I’m a little conflicted on this, mostly because I get the impression there’s a seed of an interesting or cool artistic direction inside this project, but either through a muddied creative process or a lot of executive meddling – and given Shura’s exclusion, I’m guessing it might be the latter – Mura Masa turns out to be a bit of a hodgepodge, both sonically and in terms of any overarching theme. Part of this, I discovered, is that it was pulled together with singles and tracks that go back as far as 2015 or may have shown up on other EPs, but it leads to a listening experience where again, there’s a sound that could work, but desperately needs some real focus to come together.
Granted, this is something that you can expect from electronic projects, especially those with an influx of wildly varying guest stars, and Mura Masa to his credit at least tries to put together production that flatters each singer, even if it doesn’t really wind up as cohesive as a whole. There is some consistency – overall much of the tones, be they driven on guitar or synth or marimba or steel drums flit towards the watery, tropical variety, which tends to be an interesting fusion with a set of typically fast-paced, rougher beats that wouldn’t be that far removed from more aggressive brands of hip-hop – but I’m not going to deny that following A$AP Rocky over tropical production complete with airhorns to fluttery marimbas opposite Charli XCX to Desiigner opposite sound effects from Future’s ‘Commas’ and a pretty generic flute line, all to lead into a lo-fi acoustic interlude complete with autotune can give you a bit of whiplash – and that’s before we get the songs that call back to 80s funk and disco on the second half of this album! And again, it helps that most of the guest stars acquit themselves well – Desiigner has more to work with here than Future had opposite Calvin Harris, and through much of this sound is outside of A$AP Rocky’s typical territory, he handles it well too. And when you factor in how well NAO’s delicate’s vocals work on ‘Firefly’ and how Bonzai’s cool confidence is an easy fit opposite the grooves on ‘Nuggets’ and ‘What If I Go?’, or how Damon Albarn just perfectly nails the melancholy of ‘Blu’, it’s a fine fit. The two guest performances that jump out at me the best, though, are Jamie Lidell on ‘NOTHING ELSE!’ for bringing an impressive amount of swagger, and Tom Tripp stepping up the bleary eyed British flavor on ‘helpline’, which is easily my favourite song here with the prominent bass melody and ridiculously tight groove.
It’s almost a shame then that the rest of this record doesn’t feel this tight or have the same groove, and there are definitely points where Mura Masa himself gets in the way of that. The most obvious are his autotuned vocal additions that come to the forefront on ‘Messy Love’ and overlap with Albarn on ‘Blu’, but you also need to consider the production as well. Like most modern tropical house producers he’s got a bad habit of abusing pitch shifting for breakdowns and drops, and I can’t say I’m a fan of the watery effects placed around Charli XCX’s voice on ‘1 Night’, mostly because she doesn’t need them and they don’t flatter her. And when you also consider that a lot of this production feels pretty minimalist – there isn’t really a lot of blending between the percussion and tropical tones and synth funk grooves, so much so that the reverb on ‘Who Is It Gonna B’ feels a little out-of-place for A.K. Paul – it can lead to songs where it feels like there’s a lot going on, but it can feel fragmented. And yes, part of this is inevitable due to the genre shifts and a track listing that could really flow better, but I still think within individual songs there could afford to be a little more cohesion, even if I do tend to like a lot of these grooves on songs like ‘Nuggets’ and ‘1 Night’ and ‘NOTHING ELSE!’ and ‘helpline’.
So can the lyrics pull things together? …okay, here’s the thing, I get that this was pulled together from a couple EPs along with original material, expecting a thematic throughline is not really expected – and again, it’s electronic music, you can excuse a lot in the writing. But there’s an ugly tone to a lot of the writing of these songs that really didn’t not rub me the right way that feels both presumptuous and oddly petty, where there girls are icy shrews that never understand or were ever given time and yet still want this guy, and all the guys are sensitive and humble in their success and yet aware of how unwittingly creepy or douchey some of their lines can feel. ‘Messy Love’ is the first example, where he’s pleading for the titular affection, but he never wanted the girl to ‘try’ him, but she never took the hint, and it comes back again on ‘give me The ground’, where he tells the girl not to blame him and give him ground to stand on, but for her to ‘struggle when I’m gone, that’s all you deserve’. And when you follow it with two songs from female singers about unrequited love, it sets up a weird dynamic, especially when later on the record we get ‘Who Is It Gonna B’ where we get lines like ‘every day you deny me, love gets stronger’ and how he’s more of a wildcard than her current boyfriend, and ‘every step you take backwards I get closer’ – when you pair with it with all of his pleas for her attention and guidance, it gets creepy! Thankfully, it’s not all like this, we’re not quite at Chainsmokers territory of self-aggrandizement, but still, that’s more because Desiigner can’t stay on topic to get there and A$AP Rocky is more concerned with pure hedonism and Tom Tripp and Jamie Lidell are more concerned with slick grooves than feeding into weird relationship power dynamics.
But as a whole… it’s hard for me to judge this project because, again, it feels like a hodgepodge. Mura Masa doesn’t really seem to be inventing the wheel when it comes to tropical house – most of the tones he introduces Jamie xx and Kygo bring with more atmosphere – but there’s a rougher sense of groove to the better songs that I can certainly appreciate, and if the lyrics clicked a little better, it’d probably be a much more likable project. For me, it’s a light 6/10 and a recommendation, but I’d focus more on groove than the writing, which is exactly what will hold over a lot of tropical house fans anyway. So with this… there’s potential here, I’d be curious for more, so yeah, take a look – not bad.