Jurassic 5 Skhool Yard

Jurassic 5
Power in Numbers (Interscope)
Skool Yard
A New Way of Thinking (Threshold)

Hip hop's DNA compels it to forever walk the line between showmanship and shtick -- at once pleasing party-hungry crowds and playing with the limitations of the art form. Rarely has this tightrope act been more captivating than with Los Angeles rap group Jurassic 5, whose bouncy funk loops, old-school rhyme cadences, and choreographed microphone-passing are a creatively conceived formula -- but a formula nonetheless.

With 1997's stellar eponymous EP and 2000's full-length Quality Control, Jurassic 5's two DJs and four MCs (yes, that equals six) shook the dust off the tradition of performance-friendly hip hop, to the point of even wearing matching suits onstage. DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark looped choice samples of rare funk, over which MCs Chali 2na, Zaakir (Soup), Mark 7even, and Akil reintroduced the notion of verse structures (as opposed to one MC rhyming until the chorus), trading places like cards on a monte table.

With Power in Numbers, J5 again dons its matching suits, while also showing signs of outgrowing such gimmicks. As in the past, Chali 2na's cartoonishly deep baritone anchors the block-rocking beats of such cuts as "What's Golden" and "Break." On the subtler "Freedom," though, the tag-teaming rappers speak their lines rather than calling them out, voyaging beyond party rhymes with race-conscious lyrics: "I'm the first candidate to hate/ Had to beat on the drum to communicate ... They would decapitate the tongue/ If you would mention the word 'freedom.'" The R&B-infused "Thin Line," a meditation on the border between friendship and love that somehow uses singer/waif/songwriter Nelly Furtado to nice effect, likewise shows the crew preventing dust from settling on its routine.

In Fresno, meanwhile, the four MCs in Skhool Yard -- Planet Asia, Kubiq, Shake, and Supa Supreme -- borrow a move from Jurassic 5, showcasing their braggadocio talents over deep, midtempo beats. The group's "double EP," A New Way of Thinking (featuring seven songs and their corresponding instrumentals), lives up to its title only on the first two tracks, the stately "Rap Moguls" and the driving, horn-inflected "Cigar Splitta's." On these cuts, the rappers innovate simply by passing the mike like a hot potato, evoking images of a tightly arranged stage show, if not matching outfits. While the other five tunes attempt no new stunts, they exceptionally execute the old ones -- i.e., straight-ahead beats and rhymes. Kubiq squeezes syllables onto and between the beats, Shake and Supreme offer street-smart wordplay, and the husky-voiced Asia delivers compelling lyrics with swing in his flow. Productionwise, KutMasta Kurt blends yin and yang like no one else, balancing the hard and heady with the smooth and melodic, as if punching the listener with kisses.

Those restless over rap music's stylistic limitations may lament that the genre's recent advancements -- the Dirty South and Midwest sounds, rock-rap and avant-hop -- are either not very innovative or toomuch so. But hip hop is full-grown; its developments are rarely important anymore. What matters is that crews like J5 and Skhool Yard walk hip hop's tightrope with style, keeping its traditions fresh.

 
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