“This is my natural habitat.”
Matt Allen is browsing the racks at Source Comics, an expansive emporium of role-playing games, action figures, and, of course, comics, tucked just off Snelling Avenue in the shadow of Rosedale. His sweater has a Batman logo; his glasses are square-framed and stylishly unstylish. He calls himself Nur-D and he dresses the part.
Allen didn’t start rapping till February 2018. Three months later, he was performing at Soundset. A year after that, his second album, Songs About Stuff, was getting rave reviews in the Strib. Now he’s a Picked to Click champ. Not bad for a guy who felt like he’d never fit into the rap world.
“I remember thinking, even as a black youth, that hip-hop wasn’t mine,” he says. “It wasn’t something that I could engage in because of where I grew up.”
Though Allen was born in the Bronx (no place hip-hoppier), he and his mom relocated to Rosemont when he was young. “Rosemont is just the whitest thing, upper-middle-class mostly, with the exception of a few places,” says Allen. “My mom had moved us to one of the nicer developments, but she worked four jobs, and we were still getting government cheese.”
Allen grew up between worlds, a black kid in a white burb (“I was stopped walking home from school more times by police officers than I’ve ever been stopped while driving”), a suburban kid visiting his grandparents in the Bronx.
“I watched a lot of TV and read a lot of comic books,” he says “I was an only child, so it’s not like there was much going on. When my mom was at work, that was what I did. That’s why it’s such a big part of my music.”
Gospel crossover artists Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond were as big a part of his musical diet as Outkast was. “We were in church as many times as the doors were open,” he says. Soon there was tension between his religious upbringing and his pop-culture obsessions. “The first time they told me Pokémon was the devil, I had no reason not to believe them. I was like, ‘Mom, we gotta get rid of all my cards,’ and she was like, ‘Uh, I paid a lot of money for those things.’” But Allen stood his ground when they preached that the X-Men were demons. “Nightcrawler is a devout Christian,” he explained to them. “I feel that you didn’t actually read the books.”
Allen dropped out of North Central University, a Christain school tucked away in Minneapolis’ Elliot Park, to focus on music. Desperate to get the word out about his band, Black Genesis, he came up with an odd plan: He would enter Go 95.3’s Shut Up and Rap contest, and once people were paying attention to him, he could tell them: “I’m in this band; everybody should come see this band.”
“I had been writing raps to deal with writer’s block, just to clear my head,” he says. And listening to more hip-hop, because more artists were rapping in a way that was connecting with him.
“I heard Childish Gambino rap about being the only back kid in his community, and Chance, rapping about church, and not being like a ‘church rapper.’ Here were these guys saying, ‘I’m a complex human being.’ All that made me realize: I can do this. There’s a spot for my voice in here. I can’t be the only one with this version of life, because if I’m hearing things that I recognize, maybe what I have to say, other people will recognize.”
Allen lost Shut Up and Rap, of course. But he went back, and then he won. And won. And won again, until he was retired from the competition.
Songs About Stuff is hardly as offhanded as its title suggests. Nur-D might sprinkle his rhymes with the sort of pop-culture references that get you shoved against middle-school lockers—“20 Cha” is basically the Dungeon Master’s Guide set to music—but he doesn’t whine in some sort of nasal cliché. And though he’s anti-macho he doesn’t project a false lack of confidence: As he boasts on “Tyler Breeze” (oh, yes, he’s obsessed with wrestling too), “I'm fllippin’ gorgeous,” while a line like “I wear XXL because a large is too tight” comes off like a boast.
The album’s tracks are richly melodic, with a lot of squishy keys, flowing into straightforward soul and R&B on several songs. Lyrically, Nur-D gets introspective on “Sincerely Yours,” which addresses his strained relationships with his largely absent father and depressed mother. And it gets baroquely goth on “The Epilouge,” [sic] a sequel to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” where the triumphant fiddler faces lynching for communicating with Satan.
Allen doesn’t drink or smoke, and he keeps his language G-rated while rapping. He’s not a goodie-goodie—he just knows who he is. “I’m not a traditional rapper in the sense that I’m going to be doing boom-bap 16 bars, have some lady come in and sing the chorus,” he says. “I’m weird.”