Life isn’t fair; sometimes it’s downright wrongheaded. Too often the people who don’t deserve any credit end up walking away with the girl and the phat bank account while those who are striving to make a difference or break a cycle, end up with loose change and rejection letters. This is the type of jacked-up mathematical constant I think of every time some flavor-of-the-month like 50 Cent makes MTV News, the cover of The Source, or a guest spot on Saturday Night Live, etc.
What’s sad is that Jurassic 5 so often fit this mold of unheralded artistry. And no matter how many times their songbites show up on Fox Sports, ESPN or elsewhere, J5 has had to work hard to grab some proper respect in a musical landscape now almost fully armored against anything not involving Escalades, thug glamour, hordes of honeys shaking ass, and more ice than Rakim wore on the cover of Paid in Full. And the irony is bitter, because while many pigeonhole J5 with narrow-minded terms like “throwback” or “old-school”, most hip-hop headz these days don’t realize that everything they see and feel as “real” or “new” has already been done and sometimes overdone.
In other words, J5 is by no means unique in its integration of past hip-hop aesthetics: they’ve just chosen to emulate righteous cats like the Native Tongues posse, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and other similarly conscious artists than the more ubiquitous could-give-a-shit bangers like the Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew and Compton’s Most Wanted. So it doesn’t make sense to worry about teasing out how J5 might appear too “soft” for an African-American audience, as more than a healthy share of mostly (white?) reviewers have. These guys cut their teeth at the Good Life, after all; they’ve got nothing to prove to anyone. And the unspoken implication—that artists should change their art because the general population isn’t aligned with them—in that dangerous equation is counterproductive to the extreme.
But this is sometimes the headache you can create when you buck the trend and release a disc as full of philosophy as Power in Numbers. People don’t want to be criticized for their positions or, worse, their consumer choices. So when Chali 2Na slams them on “Freedom”—“Got people screaming, ‘Free Mumia Jamal’/But two out of three of y’all will probably be at the mall”—people who see themselves as represented in that group of apathetic mallrats are gonna take it hard. But that’s their loss, because Power in Numbers has this type of protest mainlined into almost every song, and it’s something the world needs to hear in these crazy days of unelected presidents bombing the shit out of Third World poorheads to better grift their oil.
True to form, the political powerful Power in Numbers begins with an intro from one of the original Wailers, and is soon followed by the aforementioned “Freedom”, buttressed by jazz legend Julius Brockington’s hook from “This Feeling”. But while that song’s topicality keeps the lyrical fire burning, its time signature is a bit too close to the following tune, “If You Only Knew”, and the result is a bit more monotony than J5 headz may be used to. Indeed, this is the only fault some listeners might have with the album: the diversity of its production has been ratcheted back a bit further than on Quality Control, where turntablists like Cut Chemist and Numark simply ran wild and created more multidimensional beats heard in one place since Fear of a Black Planet. This time around, however, they seem to have dissolved further into the background, no new thing for the majority of today’s hip-hop acts, but certainly a new wrinkle for J5, who were specifically included in the turntablist documentary, Scratch, as examples of a new-school appreciation for those behind the decks.
Which is not to say that Cut and Numark are left out on Power in Numbers. Cut’s frenetic soundtrack for “Day at the Races” (the finest hip-hop song of 2002 and 2003 so far, in my opinion) and Numark’s fresh production on “What’s Golden” are head-bobbing paeans to technical, lyrical and musical artistry. And the hip-hop history hiding in their grooves only helps to further engineer their timelessness. Rap immortals like Big Daddy Kane and Percy P bring not just a silky smooth delivery but also a heady measure of rap cred on “Day at the Races”, while Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage” hook keeps “What’s Golden” hurtling forward like a runaway train. And when J5’s resident rappers kick back and let Numark and Cut flourish on “Acetate Prophets”, hip-hop’s future is most ably captured. Because that exhilarating fusion and tension between DJ and rapper is what’s been keeping hip-hop alive for over three decades, and that’s never going to change. Because hip-hop as an art form will die the day it does.
In short, to engage Power in Numbers to its fullest effect, you need to grab J5 when they are at their best, and that is when all of them are working together at the height of their talents. As much as Nelly Furtado’s fragile but sassy rap makes “Thin Line” slightly addictive, that song’s relatively unremarkable beat—found similarly on “If You Only Knew”, “One of Them” and “Remember His Name”—feels like a slight departure from the hip-hop collective that dropped Quality Control like a beat-junkie H-bomb.
Don’t get me wrong, Power in Numbers is the finest hip-hop album released since Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow (which itself was the finest hip-hop album released since J5’s Quality Control). It’s just that j5 has (thankfully) set the bar so high, and since so many of their songs are conscious condemnations of apathy and ignorance, people are going to be watching them closer than cats like 50 Cent. That’s just the price of genius, something J5 possesses in excess. They’ve just gotta make sure they’ve got their creative cash handy all the time, everywhere they go.
// Notes from the Road
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