Since Jurassic 5 dropped its self-titled debut in 1998, hip-hop fans across the spectrum knew something they had something great on their hands. Sure, some of the group’s rhymes were “safe” and, as the fan base grew, it was apparent that white listeners were the primary audience. But to the latter complaint, I say: So what? Race, in this case, should be a non-issue by now. As for the “safe” argument, there is a point to that. J5 wasn’t breaking any ground or sparking any revolutions. They were a group of emcees and producer(s) out to have fun, maybe drop some knowledge, and bring that feel-good sentiment back to hip-hop. And bring that feeling back they did, across a total of four releases to be exact — though, their not-so-grand finale in 2006, Feedback, was extremely unsatisfying and likely forgotten.
It’s been more than two years since J5 called it quits. And since then, fans have been anxiously awaiting the oft-delayed solo Chali 2na album. With a deep, smooth voice that booms and a liquid flow, the once prehistoric emcee always stuck out from his Jurassic brothers. He never spit outrageously clever lines or blew your mind with metaphors. But his old school delivery and bravado made his verses irresistible and were likely the ones most committed to memory. It is for those reasons, and others, that his debut, the unbalanced Fish Outta Water, is ultimately disappointing.
The first mark of frustration appears after what is a strong introductory track, “Get Focused”. Even though 2na gets a little too cornball, he holds his own in the brief opener. But once the reggae-boredom of “International” hits, the album begins its stumbling act. It only begins, though, because the next five tracks pick the pace right back up. And 2na maintains that pace while tackling a plethora of sounds. First, he heads to the club with “So Crazy”, a hi-hat and synthesizer showcase that he murders with ease. Then he takes it to the streets over a classic Jake One beat “Lock Shit Down”. With horns and thick bass rattling the trunk, 2na and guest Talib Kweli spit fresh verses that make you wish they would collaborate more often.
And the trio of subsequent tracks – “Don’t Stop”, “Keep Goin'”, and “Comin’ Thru” – keeps 2na and his listeners on their toes. Anthony Hamilton’s soulful hook turns the funky, ass-shakin’ “Don’t Stop” into something special and Choklate adds the same magic to “Keep Goin'”, which shows off 2na’s more inspirational side. But it’s after the bluesy shuffle of “Comin’ Thru”, a track laced by former J5 member DJ Nu-Mark, that Fish Outta Water starts to flop (corny joke, I know).
There is little to get excited about as the next six tracks drag their way across your music player of choice. Sure, the family-centric “Righteous Way” is wholesome and one of the most honest tracks on here. But it fails to hit as hard as the most honest joint, “4 Be Be”. Producer Emile’s solemn guitar strums and moody rhythms set the stage for a heartbreaker of a track that features 2na pouring out his soul for nearly five minutes. And he makes it an engaging listen by not just being personal, but by slowing down his flow and ensuring that you hear what he is saying. It’s safe to say that anyone who has lost someone might get a bit teary-eyed as 2na reminisces on the death of his cousin, Be Be.
Had the fish-minded emcee trimmed some fat, Fish Outta Water could have been the album we were all craving from the 2na. It’s understandable that he wants to try his hand at dancehall riddims, such as on the aforementioned “International” and “Guns Up”, but they just do not work. And other cuts — his ode to graffiti, “Graff Time”, and his relationship rant, “Love’s Gonna Getcha” — fail to hit the mark as well. But, even as you hit the skip button during the second hall, this album isn’t a total loss. It is likely J5 and 2na-heads are going to eat this right up and perhaps even cuss out yours truly for the hate. It is also likely that this optimistic emcee has a great album up his sleeve. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take another three to four years to see the light of day.