Under his government name, Keith Murray made quite the first impression in 1993 with his scene- stealing appearance on Erick Sermon’s “Hostile” single. Using the opportunity to put his murderous poetry in motion, Keith would end the verse with a mic drop moment, giving a quick lesson in neuroscience, before telling all emcees to warn their crew of his arrival (“Damagin’ your medulla, cerebrum, and cerebellum, ya got a crew, you better tell ‘em”). That legendary verse, along with his association with the well-respected Erick Sermon, would lead to Mr. Murray signing a deal with Jive Records, releasing his 1994 debut album, The Most Beautifullest Thing In This World (taken from a line in his “Hostile” verse). The album would go on to earn a gold plaque, and while it was an overall respectable album, it would get overshadowed by a slew of classic hip-hop albums released the same year. Keith would spend the next few years making several cameos, allegedly getting into a quarrel with 2pac, and beating up Prodigy at The Tunnel, before re-emerging from the funk abyss at the tail end of 1996 to release his sophomore album, Enigma.
Keith would keep his mentor, Erick Sermon, at the production helm for Enigma, with a few co-credits being distributed, and a couple of other helping hands would be involved in shaping the sound of the album. Curiously, there was only one single released from Enigma, and though the album received mostly favorable reviews, it would fail to reach the same commercial success as The Most Beautifullest.
Enigma’s an album I actually bought when it came out way back when, but it’s been a very hot minute since I listened to it last. Random thought: Fredro Starr beating Keith Murray in that MC War battle a few years back is still an enigma in my mind.
Intro – The album opens with ominous music, while Keith reminds all rappers in earshot who he is and warns that if “Anyone wanna diss me on record, Imma get physical with you,” which is clearly a rebuttal to Prodigy’s “The Infamous Prelude” and a reference to the beatdown he and his crew would later administer to the Mobb Deep rapper. After more colorful language, Keith amusingly ends his diatribe with one last request and warning: “You can say what you want, but just spell my name right, ’cause I’m comin’ to dinner.”
Call My Name – Mr. Sermon adds drums to the ominous loop from the intro and speeds it up a bit, as this one begins with a few words from Redman’s evil alter-ego, Dr. Trevis, before Keith is let out of his cell and straight jacket to unleash his sick vocabulary and deathly breath control on all his adversaries: “I’m the grand royal, hard to wear and tear, rap specimen, pissin’ on all you mere peasants, with virtuality, poetry I successfully, bring crews agony in virtual reality.” Keith sounds hungry and razor- sharp, and the aggressively rowdy hook puts an exclamation point on his menacing message.
Manifique (Original Rules) – Keith jump starts this one with some of the most elegant thug poetry I’ve ever heard: “I make music of murder and, mayhem for all of them and, murder ballads for, sweet chariots, my second return like an unstoppable bullet with wings, my ears ring your name, when you speak of me in vain.” Keith’s verbal onslaught continues throughout the track, while E-Double’s strong drums placed underneath an irresistible warm vibrating melody (that sounds very similar to the Crusaders loop he used on Double Or Nothing’s “Boy Meets World”) create a perfect contrast to our host’s hardcore couplets. The repurposing of the opening line of L.L.‘s pioneering hip-hop ballad, “I Need Love,” on the hook was a nice added touch as well. This is easily my favorite song on Enigma, and the dope song title matches the product.
Whut’s Happnin’ – Erick Sermon lays down a dark bluesy backdrop that a locked in Keith uses to devour his rivals, leaving their clothing and Timbs as the only remains and clues of human life. This song was removed from the later pressings of Enigma and it’s not currently available on DSP’s. I’d be willing to bet it had everything to do with a sample clearance issue with the sampling of the chattering crowd noise from the beginning of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which is a shame, as the sample adds very little to what was a fire record.
The Rhyme – This was the lead and I believe only single released from Enigma. The self-proclaimed “mad matador of metaphor” continues to trash talk and spew potent battle-ready bars (“The most beautifulllest, vocabulist, punchin’ phony emcees dead in their esophagus, my analysis is rougher than callouses, you better practice, if you wanna challenge this”), while the Ice Spice thick bass line from Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” brilliantly bounces all over the place in the background.
Dangerous Ground – Keith invites his L.O.D. bredrin, 50 Grand (not to be confused with 50 Cent) to join him on this boast and battle record that would also be the title track for the film Ice Cube would star in the following year. 50 Grand gives it the old college try, but Keith easily raps circles around his faithful foot soldier. But even more impressive than Keith’s rhymes is The Ummah’s (which was the production team made up of J-Dilla and two-thirds of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad…Tribe Degrees of Separation: check) deliciously whimsical instrumental.
Rhymin’ Wit Kel – If you couldn’t figure it out based on the generic song title, this song pairs Keith with his other L.O.D. crony, Kel-Vicious. E-Double and Sugarless aka Ty Fyffe loop up the same Le Pamplemousse bass line break that Tha Alkaholiks flipped for “Damn,” as the duo takes turns talkin’ shit, which also includes Kel throwin’ a jab at Jeru The Damaja (“Nigga I’ll Jeru the Damaja, your rap style is weak and it has no stamina”), which I can only assume is related to the rumor that Jeru wasn’t happy about Keith’s line from “The Most Beautifullest Thing In This World” that referenced his name (“I’ll come cleaner than Jeru and damage an amateur”). I wasn’t crazy about this one, but it’s not a terrible record either.
What A Feelin’ – Keith continues to show off his lyrical dexterity, and it sounds like he’s calling out Jeru during his second verse (“bogus arithmetic” sounds like a coded reference to the title of Jeru’s second album, Wrath Of The Math, the “damage my career” line is a double entendre, and the threat to “Pull your dreads out your scalp” is pretty straight forward). Erick and Sugarless provide a decent backdrop that Keith easily outperforms.
Hot To Def – Mr. Sermon and Sugarless keep the chill vibes coming, as they tap the same Ohio Players loop Mary J. Blige and Grand Puba rapped and sung over on “What’s The 411?” Keith, whose been known to recycle his rhymes at times, starts this one off by reusing a portion of the opening verse he spat on the freestyle for Funkmaster Flex’s 60 Minutes Of Funk: Vol 1. Even though Keith starts the song off lazily regurgitating bars, he quickly picks up steam and gets off one of my favorite Keith Murray rhymes: “Theoretically, hypothetical, practically, actually, ain’t nobody fuckin’ with me.”
Yeah – Historically, The Def Squad has made some awful posse records, which is ironic, considering E-Double and Redman were a part of one of the greatest posse records of all-time in EPMD’s “Head Banger.” This one features Keith, Erick Sermon, Redman, Jamal, and Flipmode Squad representative and leader, Busta Rhymes. On paper, it reads like a fire cipher record, and while all five emcees spit decent to solid bars, the song never fully ignites, mostly due to The Green-eyed Bandit’s underwhelming instrumental that sounds like it came out of a yellow box with “Beat” written across the front.
Love L.O.D. – I guess it’s only right that if you’re Keith Murray and have a Def Squad posse record on your album, you have to give your Legion Of Doom crew a posse cut too. Kel and 50 Grand join Keith, as the three rappers pass the mic around like a hot potato and pledge their allegiance to the L.O.D. name. Naturally, Keith sounds leagues better than his cronies, and speaking of leagues, if rap were basketball, Kel and 50 Grand would definitely play in the D-League. The most intriguing part of this record is the jazzy piano loop-driven instrumental, which sounds like something The Ummah would have produced, but the credit is given to Rod “KP” Kirkpatrick with a co-credit going to Erick Sermon.
To My Mans – Our host takes a break away from his “rah-rah” boastful tough guy shit, using E-Double’s somber backdrop to reflect on his past and offer a solemn dedication to some of the people he’s lost through the years (shout out to Kenny Rogers). It was cool hearing the vulnerable side of Keith, and it’s completely okay if Dave Hollister singing the refrain of Simply Red’s biggest hit on the hook tugged at your heartstrings and moved you to tears.
World Be Free – Keith takes the listener on a verbal trip around the globe, listing several places on the planet that he’s traveled to and “demonstrated malicious mic beatens,” including that time he did “the Ichiban crane style in Japan” that he claims Redman witnessed. Mr. Sermon’s responsible for the warm vibrations and muffled melody placed over clapping drums that give off welcoming zen energy.
The Rhyme (Remix) – Keith wraps up Enigma with this jazzy semi-zany Ummah produced remix that gives the record a completely different sound than the O.G. mix. I like the original, but I enjoyed this remix a tab bit more, which might just be my Ummah bias speaking.
Simply put, Keith Murray is one rappin’ ass negro who doesn’t nearly get the respect he deserves as a wordsmith and emcee. Throughout Enigma, Keith twists, tangles, and bounces words off each other, flexing his healthy vocabulary mixed with aggression and poetical thuggery. And when you partner those attributes with his unique high-pitch vocal tone, his colorful rhymes jump off the page to dance, punch, and kick you square in the face. Keith sums it up best on “Manifique,” describing what he does on the mic as “Illustrating grammar in a hostile manner.” Keith doesn’t waste time chasing girls or bragging about his material possession, but except for “To My Mans,” he treats each track like a UFC octagon, living for the battle.
Led by Erick Sermon with a couple sprinkles of magic from The Ummah, the production on Enigma is pretty solid throughout. The middle of the album is burdened by one too many underwhelming cameos and a few super mid beats, but even when the production or his crew members fail, Keith carries the load, thoroughly entertaining with his lyrical hostility.
Enigma might not be a classic, but it’s a vast improvement from his debut album and a solid sophomore effort from one of hip-hop’s most underappreciated emcees.