Minnesota Music Reviews: Nur-D
Tragedy and injustice are a hothouse for art that expresses anger and frustration. While these emotions can create strong music, it takes an exceptional artist to push their work into another realm and spread hope in terrible times.
Twin Cities rapper Matt Allen, who performs as Nur-D, explores the horrific police murder of George Floyd on back-to-back albums 38th - released last October - and its December follow-up called Chicago Avenue. The full-length recordings deliver two very different and powerful messages from a man who literally served on the front lines of the South Minneapolis uprising and worked in its aftermath.
Up until 2020, Nur-D had been a bedroom mixtape project of a smooth, easy-going rhymer focused on body positivity and personal pride messages. Sweet love songs. Nothing dangerous. No nasty catch phrase. Then came the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd.
Nur-D found himself in the middle of a revolution. He participated in the protests, providing first aid to the injured and getting arrested for it. Afterward, he spent time at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue where the uprising turned into a world-wide movement.
On 38th, Nur-D abandons his bedroom and leads the charge into a social change battlefield.
“I’m gonna go ahead and rip the Band-Aid off. Nur-D nerd has been black since day one,” he raps. “It don’t matter to a cop if I don’t cuss in my music and I smile with my hands up.”
The sound is electric, emotional and straight to the point. “Cheat Codes,” “Burn It Down,” and “PSA” roar with anger and frustration of a man who has been tear gassed in the streets. It’s a long way from his love sick ballads of old.
In a funereal spoken word coda, Nur-D explains it this way: “To a lot of you my music has been a safe space,” he says. “It’s not easy being black in this country. It’s also not easy to know that you will lose people for speaking out about that fact.”
While 38th is a bold statement that redefines Nur-D as an artist unafraid to tackle difficult political and cultural issues, Chicago Avenue is a triumph of the human spirit.
“Thank God I can still feel your heartbeat. Open your eyes - see you're not alone now. We’re by your side. Nobody’s leaving,” he sings on “Still Alive,” the opening track. “Stand when you’re ready to stand. We got you here in our hands. The world is still up in flames. We gonna love you through the pain.”
On “Phoenix,” guests Metasota and Destiny Roberts find an enduring energy in the Floyd uprising and Nur-D raps: “The fire’s gone from the buildings but now it’s locked inside. You better recognize.”
Tracks use bouncing piano, smooth-groove synth and scratchy De La Soul beats that give the material a buoyancy and immediacy. The songs - and yes, there is some singing - feel lighter than 38th but still carry an important emotional weight. Maybe it's because eight of the 11 tracks feature guest artists, giving the work a collaborative feel with different points of view. Everything sounds fresh.
For example, “Freedom” could be an anthem for the George Floyd era. Connecting back to 38th themes, Nur-D and guest Sieed Brown call for justice with blazing raps like: “Left foot. Right foot. Right again. Marching through the city - make it better like a vitamin. Then again, maybe we need something a little stronger like penicillin.”
The songs on Chicago Avenue search for hope amid the rubble of revolution. Sometimes hope is hard to find, but Nur-D isn’t afraid to search. He has put together a powerful collection of songs to document the change unearthed at the now famous south Minneapolis intersection.