The phrase “fish out of water” usually implies notions of awkwardness or misplaced efforts. Yet for former Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli emcee Chali 2na, being a fish out of water is just the beginnings of a new solo career. After nearly four years in label politics limbo, his debut solo album Fish Outta Water is fast approaching its release date of July 7 on Decon Records, and he couldn’t feel better.

It feels like I was pregnant,” said Chali. “That’s probably the closest thing I could think of [it being like] and to have it be almost due. It’s been awhile. I kind of had to revamp the album a couple of times just because of the times changing, the trends changing, the music business changing and the economy changing. It was just a lot of changing. A few songs stood the test of time and are still standing. But then I kind of had to go back in and make sure I crafted something around those ones that stood the test of time, tat still told the story that I wanted to tell. It’s been cool. I just happy that it’s finally coming out.

According to Chali, Fish Outtta Water has been completed since 2005, only denied release by former label Interscope. Now, having signed with Decon Recordings, Chali said the long time it took to release the album allowed him the chance to fully examine not only his music, but also the state of the industry. 

“[The time it took to release Fish Outta Water] affected [my mentality] in a couple of ways,” noted Chali. “The first thing I think is that the time that it took and the blessing of being in a group [Jurassic 5] that was on the road all the time and being able to be…right smack dab in the middle of what was going on musically. It was a blessing. I was able to stand from a perspective and look around and still see what was relevant, what wasn’t, how the music business was changing, what maybe needed to happen in order for me to have some kind of success with any other kind of projects that I might want to do even outside of the solo stuff. It was cool to kind of stand on a watchtower, so to speak, and be looking around and be able to see everything from a really clear view.

Also a visual artist, Chali discussed the middle ground between art and music and how they come into play on Fish Outta Water. He approaches rhyming similarly to the way in which he approaches painting, utilizing minute details to vividly tell his story.

I’m a very detail-oriented person,” said Chali. “If you look at my paintings, you’ll see [that] they’re very detailed. I try to get [as] detailed as possible, and I think the way I write my rhymes is the exact same thought process of trying to capture details and trying to have layers of things that rhyme and things that mean certain things. I’ve been around different people and watched different ways [in which] they create, but my most comfortable way is to try to see what I’m saying, and in that while I’m writing the raps down, it’s actually like a painting so to speak. I sit there and I’m like ‘Okay, this needs foreground, this needs background, this needs shadow, this needs depth.’ That’s where I’ve always come from with it.

He later added, “I started to try and understand the music perspective, a perspective of my voice being an instrument as opposed to it just being something that raps. I started to learn how to play little percussion instruments, and I learned down [in Cuba while on a trip with Ozomatli] that everything is based around the drum, and if you play the piano like you play a percussion instrument as opposed to it being some type of string instrument or something, it’s the right way to do it…I was like ‘Yo, let me just try to write stuff in the patterns and see if that works,’ and it just opened up a whole other realm.”

The album takes a tone rarely heard by fans of Chali’s work with Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli. At times, the album pulsates with aggressive energy. Chali described how the turmoil from the industry and the break-up of Jurassic 5 led to such moments of assertiveness.

[The aggressiveness of certain songs was from] just feeling at the time. I felt really frustrated at a point in the midst of all the turmoil going on within the group, outside of the group, at the label; all of this stuff was going on and I really felt that way. I felt like, ‘I need to get this off my chest how I felt.’ [The song] ‘So Crazy’ was me, basically turning around a lot of blogs and shit that I was reading about how people were trying to blame me for shit. I’m like, ‘C’mon, man.’ You might think I’m crazy, but in actuality, the word ‘insanity’ can really mean ‘genius’ sometimes. And [the song] “Lock Shit Down” was the same way. What I was going through at the time, I just needed to get it off my chest.

He then added, ”I was a Native Tongues fan. Then, in the midst of what we were doing with Jurassic, it dawned on me: ‘Damn, we are in the same position as [A Tribe Called Quest] [click to read] and the rest of them dudes in creating a sound that people really like and people feel like is a movement, even though it may not feel like that to us because we’re actually in it.’ So when that dawned on me, it kind of made me feel like those guys kind of passed the torch to the people who really liked them, especially the artists. The next thing you knew, we’re striving to take further steps than what they’d even taken, to further the cause. I feel like Blu [click to read], [Pacific] Division [click to read], all these dudes are doing that, and I’ve got no problem. I’m appreciative of that. I’m glad that cats are picking up the torch and keeping it burning. I’m happy about that for real. Whether it’s the west coast, the Midwest, the south, wherever…I think the envelope is being pushed because we now have a little bit more control of our craft.”

Fish Outta Water is in stores July 7 on Decon Records.