When Ozomatli's eponymous first album hit the airwaves in 1998, it seemed the Los Angeles-based octet was poised to do the impossible: make an unlikely combination of rock en español, hip-hop, and progressive politics a mainstream phenomenon. Ozomatli tapped into a limitless vein of funk and groove without a single misstep, and the band was showered with much-deserved accolades.
In the three years between albums, Ozomatli signed on to Interscope Records, even as the hip-hop wing of Ozomatli split from the group to perform full-time with Jurassic 5. Meanwhile, Ozo recruited Kanetic Source and DJ Spinobi to replace Chali 2na and Cut Chemist on the rhymes and breaks, and their second album was fatefully released on September 11, 2001.
As noted in these pages three years ago, Embrace the Chaos followed Ozomatli's lead, but showed less ambition and fusion of styles than the debut. Perhaps a result of being a major label release, the album stuck to more cut-and-dried separations of hip-hop and Latin music, but as always the album was infused with street-level political consciousness.
After another three years, Ozo's back with Street Signs, on the significantly smaller-scale Concord Records. On the surface, it seems the band has stuck to slightly tweaking its general formula without any radical reinvention of its sound. There is still a mix of Spanish and English songs, some hip-hop, lots of Latin jazz and countless catchy hooks.
Calling an Ozomatli album status quo is far from damning, but a band with so much potential should clearly be held to high standards. Thankfully, significant progress is evident from the opening moments of the album: After three years of a "war on terror", it seems that Ozomatli has stopped embracing the chaos and instead embraces hope, love and beauty. Street Signs is full to bursting with gorgeous melodies and infectious optimism. "Believe" is about finding beauty and empowerment in the face of destruction. The essence of "Love and Hope" is self-evident, but the track's chorus of "Just raise your head up / And stand up / No fear in your eyes / Tell me love and hope never die / So raise your head up / And stand up / No reason to cry / 'Cuz your heart and soul will survive" is infinitely more powerful than raging at any machine.
There's plenty of brightness on Street Signs. Longtime live favorite "Ya Viene El Sol" ("Here Comes the Sun") makes an appearance, remixed by Spinobi and featuring an introduction by "ultimate music fan" Beatle Bob. The simple guitar intro of album closer "Cuando Canto" gives way to glorious polyrhythmic balladry, a fitting end to a fantastic album.
It would be difficult to surpass the contributions of Chali 2na and Cut Chemist to Ozomatli, and new rhymesayer Jabu performs admirably, especially on the bouncy block-party tune "Saturday Night". But an appearance by 2na on "Who's to Blame" will almost certainly make fans nostalgic for the across-the-board brilliance of Ozo's first album.
As a response to the political and military climate of the times, Ozo has also embraced Middle Eastern sounds for Street Signs. The Prague Orchestra contributes graceful Arabic strings to album opener "Believe" and the ebullient anthem "Love and Hope", and tablas supply the beat for "Who's to Blame" and "Believe". But the musical melting pot that is Ozomatli remains the prevailing force. Hip-hop and Latin music are back in bed together on Street Signs, and it's definitely a good thing, as evidenced by the mix of Spanish ballads, English ballads, and copious rock bilingüe.
While Ozo has never shied away from pronouncing their progressive politics live and on wax (and there are politics aplenty on Street Signs), perhaps the biggest coup of the album is the appearance of master jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri on "Doña Isabelle" and "Nadie Te Tira". His silky piano melodies seem to spur the band to frenzied new heights with impassioned singing from Asdru Sierra and Raùl Pacheco and an all-out brass assault.
Speaking of all-out assaults, no quibbling about the merits of the various Ozo albums can overshadow the fact that the best way to experience the band is at their live shows, which invariably showcase the band's cohesive, raucous performance and ritual pre- and post-show drum and conga lines. If you're like me and fell off the band's wagon after Embrace the Chaos, there is every reason in the world to jump back on, con mucho gusto, with Street Signs.