J5: maximum ‘Power’

It wouldn’t be quite right to say that the Jurassic 5 have been slept on. Their release of 2000, the aptly-titled “Quality Control,” was rightly regarded as a modern classic of collective hip-hop, blending compelling vocals with smooth beats and more than living up to the potential shown by the sextet in their 1997 EP.

The downside of this praise, though, was that many were able to pigeonhole the group, stigmatizing the all-for-one flows of Zaakir, Marc 7, Chali 2na and Akil and the more than palatable beats of Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist as something alien to the individualistic modern rap world. J5 were actually seen by some as too “old-school,” as if the trash that passes for mainstream rap these days is actually desirable.

Any such criticism should be put to rest by the release of “Power in Numbers,” the superior second full-length release from the LA-based group. From start to finish, “Power” demonstrates the considerable abilities of the Jurassic clique and their motley gang of guests, succeeding not only as a hip-hop album but as a sublime musical experience.

Much of the credit for this accomplishment is due to the superior production seen throughout the album. Attendees of the group’s 2000 concert in Lasell Gym can surely testify to the live-on-stage turntable skills of both Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark, but here the duo have proved just as able in the studio, combining to craft 12 of the disc’s 17 tracks in admirable style.

None is as catchy as that of the lead single, “What’s Golden,” in which Nu-Mark blends a humming synth melody with chirping horns, rounding off the vintage hook with a clever Chuck D sample. “I’m labor ready, Rhodes scholar for the dollar,” raps Akil on the track, which has been featured on a NFL commercial, and has probably gleaned the group more recognition than any of their other tracks.

The musical goodness hardly stops there, however – while other producers may delve through the lyrical archives of Jay-Z or Nas searching for a lyrical sample, the Jurassic beats on “Power” exhibit a stunning array of mixed and borrowed harmonies. From the Cosby Show-derived perfection of “After School Special” to the fast-paced David Axelrod bass-line of “A Day at the Races,” to the flowery chillness of the Nelly Furtado-guested “Thin Line,” the beats reflect the broad horizons of their owners.

That breadth of style is key – in demonstrating the variegation of pace that was often lacking from “Quality Control,” the J5 producers manage to take their appeal to the next level. Tracks like “Break” or “High Fidelity” with heavy old-school appeal that might have dragged in previous releases are now infused with life, with Cut Chemist tearing apart the former with a minute-long barrage of scratches, and Nu-Mark employing a Beatnut-style upbeat flute loop on the latter.

Juju of the Beatnuts shows up to rap on “One of Them,” possibly the most hardcore cut on “Power.” Fortunately for listeners, his is the weakest lyrical verse on the album, shown up on the track by the comedic excellence of Marc 7, who unleashes a scathing attack of the vanity of mainstream rappers. “Concerned with lookin’ cute, nails done, eyes plucked,” he flows. “Help a brother understand, how self-admiration takes the soul of a man.”

The deep-voiced charisma of Chali 2na again exerts its presence on “Power,” kicking off the album with a sly verse on the haunting “Freedom.” Irrepressibly positive, 2na throws down the gauntlet to those that fail to share the J5’s high ideals on “I Am Somebody,” channeling that old-time Sugar Hill spirit. “Who’s to say if I choose to make moves today, whether I win or lose or end up on the news today?” he inquires. “Amused but never confused, still got dues to pay, you abuse elegant rules when you use clichés.”

The beauty of “Power in Numbers” is that, unlike the pure derivative tracks seen in the releases of the Murder Inc.-type (think “Foolish”), this LP never falls back on anything played-out or passé. The group has succeeded in bringing the historically best aspects of the hip-hop scene into the 21st century, melding the rhythms and flows together in imitable J5 style. This is, as the Roots might say, “the hot music,” and should be pursued by all rap afficionados.