Jurassic 5’s debut album, Quality Control (Interscope), was a tyrannically jubilant endeavor that carved a new niche within hip-hop. Finally, a home for those Native Tongues–inspired rap purists who had graduated from the garrulous lair of underground hip-hop but didn’t fit in with the Roc-A-Fella crowd. Blackalicious, Black-Eyed Peas, and several others followed in J-5’s wake, gleaning large if unsophisticated suburban followings with their righteous, communal rap style. By taking their music to the people on a never-ending touring schedule (including opening for a Fiona Apple tour), J-5 created the template of success for their peers and also solidified their identity as hip-hop’s version of the hippie jam band.
Yet that distinction doesn’t sit well with this LA crew, who come to the Worcester Palladium this Tuesday. On the new Power in Numbers (Interscope), they expend a mighty effort trying to outgrow their reputation as the "happy" rap group. For all that they’re still buoyant, they’ve contrived to develop an ever-so-slightly more serious, tad bit more aggressive edge. It’s a quest for musical maturity by this six-piece (all but one of whom are in their 30s) and also, one suspects, for validation and credibility within the hip-hop world. After all, you want to be able to bring an old-school artifact like Percee P out on stage with you and have somebody recognize him — right?
J-5 are unapologetic old-school revivalists: on Power in Numbers their succinctly harmonized raps still evoke the feel of the Cold Crush Brothers, and their funk cut-ups still echo hands-in-the-air basement jams. Rather than the protean party days they used to allude to (the "Jurassic" in their name), the period they summon here is the "golden era" of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when artists like De La Soul and Gang Starr were leaders of the hip-hop pack. "What’s Golden" spells it out. Over a swinging, hopscotch beat built in the style of DJ Premier and authored by the group’s tirelessly inventive production tandem of Cut Chemist and Numark, J-5 proclaim: "We’re not ballin’ or shot-callin’/We take it back to the days of Yes-Y’allin’/We’re holdin’ onto what’s golden."
Power embraces not only the styles of those days but the idealism as well. "Hey" ruminates on the utopia of get-togethers with close friends; "Freedom" highlights the dynamics of a post-September 11 world, with Mark 7 rapping, "Imagine a life without choice at all/Given no hope without a voice at all/These be the problems we face/I’m talking poverty and race." The sentiments are more hopeful than corny, and along with the muted, jazzed-up rhythms, they sound like messages from back when it was okay for an artist like A Tribe Called Quest to reveal emotion and ask worldly questions.
Sometimes the play for a past style is over-obvious, as on "A Day at the Races," an ode to the fast-rap style of the Cold Chillin’ ’80s, with cameos by icons Big Daddy Kane and Percee P. With its clumsy analogy between rapping and basketball, "Break" underlines how much J-5 need to grow if they’re to escape the perception of being, well, a junior-varsity crew. "Break" is the equivalent of rhyming practice, and nobody wants to pay to see that.
Jurassic 5’s first venture into pop territory is more successful. "Thin Line" ponders the delicacy of personal space in relationships, with Nelly Furtado chattering at her culturally ambiguous best. The confectionary melody proves J-5 can write a real song, and that should earn them even more fans. But imagine the surprise of collegiate bohemians everywhere when they get to "One of Them." Aimed at a long list of targets — fake artists, the media, vain men, music execs — the song begins with one verse by the Beatnuts’ Juju threatening, "Homo, I’m-a hurt your feelings," and ends each subsequent verse with the sharp rebuke, "Oh you one of them niggas!"
Forget the inherent comedy in a jovial hip-hop crew’s suddenly flexing their tough-guy muscles — comments like those are misguided and not very becoming. In their mission to validate their standing within hip-hop and go beyond their backpacker characterization, J-5 want to act hard, and that could cost them their loyal but decidedly liberal fan base. It’s not a formula for longevity. What is, on the other hand, is J-5’s role as a time-traveling portal that brings hip-hop history to the masses. After all, someone has to teach all those suburban kids who Big Daddy Kane is.
Jurassic Five headline the Palladium in Worcester this Tuesday, October 29. Call (800) 477-6849.