What’s gangsta? This question came to mind the other day while watching the classic hip-hop film Wild Style, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. In one of the movie‘s most famous scenes, the Cold Crush quartet faces off against the Fantastic 5 for a lyrical and b-ball showdown. By today’s standards, the whole sequence feels a bit silly, West Side Story dressed in velour and acid-wash, yet it‘s clear that director Charlie Ahearn was suggesting an evolution of b-boy battles, away from gang warfare. The irony is that somewhere between the Black Spades and the Bloods, rap music has inverted that formula, downplaying lyrical pugnacity in favor of naked, violent aggression as the true sign of hip-hop authenticity (which, if you think about it, would make Bush and Cheney more hip-hop than Tupac and Biggie).

Maybe that’s why some seem to think L.A.‘s Jurassic 5 are too nice for their own good. In this month’s Blender, RJ Smith reviews the recent Smokin‘ Grooves Tour J5 co-headlined and writes that the group “prove themselves friendly — to a fault,” suggesting that evoking “rap’s early spirit of team play and innocent good times” has made the group charming but ultimately innocuous. Smith‘s impression of the old school is rose-colored — no one’s ever accused Wild Style of gritty ghetto realism, and even that film betrays a cynicism that proposes that hip-hop‘s early days were anything but innocent or cooperative. But in today’s climate, Smith‘s conclusions are easy to understand. The outward playfulness that J5 exhibit doesn’t convey the kind of smug aloofness and seething spite made sexy by the likes of Jay Z, Eminem and others. J5 are victims of their own success, and because they‘re viewed by a few as a throwback, they’re being treated as a throwaway.

That‘s why there’s no better time than now for Akil, Chali 2na, Cut Chemist, Mark 7even, Nu Mark and Zaakir to roll out their second album, Power in Numbers. With it, J5 have found a way to retain their nuevo-retro appeal without being beholden to it. As Mark 7even sounds off in Urb, “We‘re not hip-hop to the hippity hip-hoppin’ all day long.” Instead, Power in Numbers finds the group exhibiting a far greater breadth than on their previous Quality Control (2000), a pleasant but rather mild album in hindsight. For example, their lead single, “What‘s Golden,” features familiar group harmonies, but DJ Nu Mark’s beat leaps off the wax with a whoosh! of adrenaline that you wouldn‘t have heard two years back.

Jurassic tackle new creative ground here, such as the dark, moody “Remember His Name,” a piercing allegory about death in the inner city that allows the group to show off heretofore unseen storytelling abilities, while on the frenetic “A Day at the Races” J5 get to run their lines alongside the mercurial mouths of fast rap legends Percee P (hot) and Big Daddy Kane (not). The pairing with pop vocalist Nelly Furtado on “Thin Line” might look questionable on paper, but the song’s cautionary tale of separating love from friendship is surprisingly affecting.

Power invokes a wide range of moods, from the laid-back jazz- adelic vibe of “Hey” (a backyard-BBQ anthem if ever there was one) to the urgency of the politically charged “Freedom,” the album‘s opening salvo and one of the most riveting songs the group has ever released. Rhythms shift from the midtempo hammerings of “High Fidelity” and “Sum of Us” to the snap-ya-back whirlwind of “Break,” and especially “Acetate Prophets,” Cut Chemist and Nu Mark’s epic instrumental barrage.

The album‘s most surprising track is the one that’s furthest distanced from the group‘s old-school aesthetics. “One of Them” (produced with a sinister lope by the Beatnuts’ Juju) is the 2002 equivalent of De La Soul‘s 1991 “Afro Connections at a Hi 5”: Each song tries to kill off the respective group’s soft, harmless image with snarling invectives attacking other rappers. In J5‘s case, they slap at everyone from studio gangsters to pretty-boy players — the effect isn’t wholly convincing, but that‘s partially because it’s so unexpected; clearly J5 are throwing down a not-so-subtle gauntlet to those who think that just because they rhyme with harmonic hospitality means they can‘t throw dem blows at the suckas.

“One of Them” is defensive — to a fault — but forgivable given the high quality of the rest of the album and the reality that J5 are trying to box their way out of a pigeonhole. Thankfully, Power in Numbers doesn’t collapse into a series of reactionary missives. Jurassic 5 don‘t waste their time striking back — they’re too busy charging forward.

JURASSIC 5 | Power in Numbers | (Interscope)

LA Weekly