Do you remember the Los Angeles season of MTV's The Real World? Race and politics were all over that ill-fated Venice Beach house, and accordingly, one of the series' funniest moments bore the marks of both those peculiar American pathologies. David, the sex-rated comedian who would eventually be thrown out of the house for questionable practices toward the fairer gender, was attempting to explain to Jon (not me), the pasty redneck country-covers singer, some seminal things about rap. "Rap isn't about being nice," he told him, more or less, "You don' wanna hear nobody rapping about 'I'm nice/ba-dum-bop-ba-dum-dum/And I'm nice. . . .'"
Jon (again, not me) didn't get it, and apparently neither did Jurassic 5, Los Angeles' first great underground hope. Apparently the day that episode aired, the group was in some corner at the Good Life Caf鬠learning how to rhyme as a gleaming, glinting, glowing unit. These are some happy cats—they smile, they dance, they engage in all forms of onstage banter that bespeaks not only a serious old-school fetish (more on that later) but a poignant intimacy missing from much hip-hop today.
And it sucks.
Now, before you get me wrong, let me just say how much I love happy people. They make the world a dandy place. They always find that blasted silver lining no matter how thick and obscure the cloud. Maybe I'm just threatened by their seeming security in the world, and indeed, J5 do seem happy—touring with Fiona Apple and the Beastie Boys and getting touted as the group to save Los Angeles from its morass of self-indulgence the way Freestyle Fellowship never did.
More likely, though, Jurassic 5 are missing the one thing hip-hop's always had in abundance—edge. And I don't mean that in the reductive way older critics inevitably pander to hip-hop. It's more about how even at its most mainstream, hip-hop's always retained an air of insouciance. Even, gasp, Will Smith's pop shenanigans carry a casual authority, as if no one could disrupt his world, despite the professional shucking and jiving. It's his party, dammit; selling out is part of the grand design.
J5 don't have such concerns, though; their happiness is much more plebian. On "L.A.U.S.D," they chant along in their collaborative way, "We are no superstars/who wanna be large and forget who we are/don't judge us by bank accounts and big cars/ no matter how bright we shine we're far from being stars." You see, being independent is good fun. Just like sleeping on your cousin's couch.
Nowhere on Quality Control, their first full-length, do they ever break on through to the other side. It's all pre-ironic. What shows through isn't the seeds of experience, sown over years and now providing a rich harvest. Instead, we have a bunch of grown men rapping about largely irrelevant things (granted, not uncommon for independent hip-hop) in a manner unlistenable to most fans of the genre they claim to represent. They'd like to think they're poking fun at the rap world's shortcomings, but in reality, they're not even coherent enough to execute them correctly in the first place. Shout-outs from Sean Lennon and Sherman Helmsley (movin on up!) only make me long for less absurd ones—say, from Sting or Donald Trump.
J5's previous effort, an eponymous 1998 EP, at least possessed some original charms. Their songs were instinctive and catchy, and their old-school revisionism was executed expertly—worn heavily, but not on the sleeve. This time through, that subtlety is absent. Constant reference to their back-in-the-day fetish weighs them down as they attempt to explain that even though they really really love Cold Crush, they're not the same thing—though they're flattered by the comparison of course. On "Monkey Bars," they assert, "Now, you know us, but it's not the Cold Crush/four MCs so it ain't the Furious/not the Force MCs or the Three from Treacherous/it's a blast from the past from the moment we bust." Umm, whatever you say guys, but maybe I could understand you a bit better if you didn't all rhyme at the same time.
And that's one of the great shames of Jurassic 5—they're not bad rhymers at all, particularly Chali 2na, whose basso profundo is the group's most distinctive voice and whose lyrics are consistently the most semantically clever. Furthermore, J5 make great music, at least Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark do, incorporating strutting funk basslines, shrill flutes, and extraordinarily crisp snare kicks into a sonic teaser that works in the head, if not in the car. But for the group to last, to truly have an impact on the world to which they claim obsessive allegiance, they may just have to get mad. Poor record sales should take care of that nicely, I'd think.