Around the same time that MC Hammer rose to prominence with his flashy image embodied in a pyrotechnic stage show in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a torch was passed on from the founding emcees of rap that were largely overlooked by the mainstream, such as KRS-One or Big Daddy Kane, to the Wu-Tang Clan and other rappers and producers. The artists who carried on the torch from Run-D.M.C. and other groups like them into the late ‘90s and new millennium, such as New York City emcees Talib Kweli or Mos Def, were characterized by their beats that relied on the sounds of Jazz and Soul, their fidelity to the original emcee skills like spontaneous freestyling, and a shared influence from non-musical Hip Hop communal activities like breakdancing and graffiti. But such NYC emcees certainly had their Midwest doppelgängers, like Kanye West circa The College Dropout in 2004, as well as their West Coast analogues in groups like Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5 at the turn of the century. A direct line can be drawn between the upbeat and carefree lyrics of rap’s first mainstream hit, The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight,” and the uplifting, glorious howl of joy that opens Jurassic 5’s most famous single, 2002’s “What’s Golden.”
So it is certainly no accident that the artistic and ideological linchpin around which former Jurassic 5 member Chali 2na’s new EP turns is figuratively and literally near the center of his new project. The third track of the total eight that appear on Manphibian Music, entitled “Jungle Sometimes,” unmistakably samples Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s 1982 track “The Message,” which might be the most important song in all of Rap’s history. And just like opera composers are hesitant to set Shakespeare’s great tragedies to music because they are already artistically perfect, even the Hip Hop OGs have the burden of doing justice to the masterpieces of the past, as Chali 2na successfully does here and on the EP as a whole.
Far from inviting the kind of criticism Jay Z did in the early 2000s when he re-styled Notorious B.I.G.’s rhymes on tracks like “Squeeze First,” in both his lines and chosen beats, Chali 2na respects and pays homage to the greats that made his current work possible by referencing the legends but also expanding on their themes. He does this on Manphibian Music when he quotes Melle Mel’s original opening rhymes from “The Message” on that same track “Jungle Sometimes.” However, 2na then goes on to tell a new story that is similar to but different from Melle Mel’s own narrative of the struggle of black urban youth by extending that generation’s complaints to modern Arab Americans. Such an adherence to an artistic Golden Age of Rap is also affirmed in 2na’s bars on this EP’s “Maintain,” when he promises, “Never will I fall into that ugly clone sound / Or that gangsta boogie shit, ” or in the lines from “Cuban Woman” that read, “Understand the inner workings of the culture / I’m a fan.” This musical mission is even further reinforced by featured verses on this Los Angeles emcee’s past albums, which include the likes of the previously mentioned Talib Kweli and Dilated Peoples member Rakaa Iriscience on Chali 2na’s 2009 effort First Outta Water, or Mos Def on a 2009 collaboration with K’naan. Even back on the 2004 Fish Market single “Don’t Stop,” this Jurassic 5 alumnus encapsulates all of these thoughts: “And to my culture respect due / I protect, others neglect you / So later for what the whack say / 'Cause Herc and Afrika Bam deserve back pay.”
Many producers today are breaking new, sometimes avant-garde ground with an ever-expanding palette of sounds coming from electronic dance music and elsewhere. A good example of this can be found in producer Lifted’s extremely popular “Mercy” beat for Kanye West’s 2012. In contrast, Chali 2na has chosen to take a modern magnifying glass to that historic ‘80s and ‘90s Hip Hop legacy in order to make something new out of something from the past while exploring the future from time to time. The sounds on Manphibian Music are often familiar: the background, quasi-James Brown vocal screams in “Let’s Start” along with the track’s funk horn hits and guitar chords, or the undistorted guitars, processed synth strings in the upper registers, big orchestral hits, and minor key musical world of the closing beat “Megladon” that recall Dr. Dre’s 2001. And so maybe the Manphibian portmanteau title of this whole EP and its first track speaks to Chali 2na’s artistic evolution as a combination of two animals: the bona fide old school rapper combined with a man who can also flow over newer, more banging beats, like “Carry Go Bring Come,” revealingly and fittingly the EP’s best track. That beat comes fully assembled as an electro Dancehall rocker, Jamaican Patois toast already included. But it is a shame that someone who has frequently displayed some stubborn reticence to expand his artistic vision, as contemporaries like Kanye West have done, neither attempts to do so very often or always pulls it off successfully. “Cuban Woman,” although underwritten by a passable but somewhat cliché love story, comes off as a mechanical rendering of a vibrant Hispanic musical culture. If you’re going to engage with ethnic musics that have extremely rich and deep histories, you’ll need to do so authentically, beyond superficial samples and token reference to rhythms, because those musics, whenever they appear, tend to do so with unfettered enthusiasm. Unfortunately, those two songs together largely form the extent of Chali 2na’s exploration of new sounds.
But the most obvious feature of this album, the quality of 2na’s voice, is what everyone wants to talk about first when the self-styled “verbal Herman Munster” comes up. And with a bass voice as storied as Feodor Chaliapin’s, a truism of all great Rap artists is crystallized clearly: a listener would never mix up the work of one extremely talented rapper with that of another. 2na has never quite displayed the versatility of someone like The Roots’ Black Thought, but what Chali 2na does he does extremely well.
He tries to periodically mix his rap up from his usual flow that is straightforward to the point of being in your face and that utilizes even rhythms, which largely comprised his style on Jurassic 5’s self-titled debut in 1998 or the group’s Power In Numbers album from 2002 that came before they broke apart in 2007. For instance, 2na attempts a quicker, Big Boi-like flow on Manphibian Music’s “Stand Up,” but it just doesn’t quite fit his voice. He generally articulates his word in a low, round way, not with the sharp, staccato articulation that Twista or Big Boi is capable of and is necessary for quicker deliveries. As a rhymer, 2na’s inimitable delivery almost overshadows his verbal acrobatics on lines like “Setting up to drop bombs verbally / Chali 2na dot com, certainly / We pose an emergency inadvertently,” which are definitely aided by that unique style. As a rapper overall, Chali 2na does everything pretty damn well—rhymes, delivery, storytelling—but he doesn’t do any one thing transcendentally that might push this EP into a classic status.
If something is missing from this mixtape, it’s the rest of Jurassic 5 as a unified group. It’s questionable whether 2na is a good enough emcee to carry an entire EP on his own, especially one with eight tracks whose length is closer to a full blown album than a shorter mixtape. But perhaps that appraisal is just a subconscious, public call for a Jurassic 5 reunion, which has been rumored about in a projected live album. This EP is largely an update of Chali 2na’s current happenings, but is there anything wrong with hearing some news from an old, cherished friend? Ultimately, because of a nostalgic yearning for an artistic golden age that is so skillfully fulfilled it not only doesn’t sully any legacies but raises Chali 2na’s own profile even further.