Ozomatli is all about the party. Or at least they once were. The L.A. ensemble noted for their fusion of hip hop and salsa were always blending styles, instrumentations and even moods, from party jams to somber ballads to conscious hip hop. The band's previous album, Street Signs, was a solid release but reflected more of the ballads and conscious hip hop mentality with much less "party".
Don't Mess With The Dragon, however, is a return to form. Afterall, Ozomatli is the name of the Aztec god of dance, fire, and music, and this new record reflects all of these things. While all of Ozomatli's records have been wonderful in their own right, this is the first that is readily comparable to their first release, Ozomatli, which is widely regarded as being their best. An alternate title for 'Don't Mess With The Dragon' could be 'How Ozomatli Got Their Groove Back'.
It's evident from the moment you press play and are greeted with a rump shaker called 'Can't Stop' that Ozomatli is back in top form. This song alone is like a microcosm of their signature sound, mixing Latin beats with electric guitars, DJ Spinobi's ambient accents, a hip hop interlude and inspirational vocals about "seizing the day" and having "faith in love". In a nutshell, this is Ozomatli.
'City of Angels' keeps the tempo going with a funky beat-infused cowboy anthem about L.A. The rap flows on this track are the most solid since Embrace The Chaos featured De La Soul on '1234' and Justin Porée and Kanetic Source on 'Lo Que Dice'. 'City of Angels' marks the moment where MC's Justin Porée and Jabu come into their own and start to move out from under the shadow of previous MC, Chali 2Na. The addition of The Fred Martin Singers also helps to give the band a soul boost.
Not enough can be said for the laidback, simplicity of 'After Party'. This is the type of song that you wish would start playing on your iPod as your walking down the street on a sunny afternoon. It also shows that lead singer Raúl Pacheco can evoke emotion even when he's just singing about finding a good party.
The title track to 'Don't Mess with The Dragon' is downright infectious. I would like to know the meaning behind this song. Superficially it seems very funny. With a goofy repeating chorus like 'Don't Mess with the Dragon' and someone making monkey noises in the background alá Ben Stiller, it's surprising to read the lyrics and find them to be fairly depressing. But the vibe is upbeat ska with some Far East flavor.
'La Gallina', 'Here We Go' and 'Creo' are almost reggaeton (a genre this reviewer doesn't have much love for) but with enough Ozomatli-ness to make it work. Also, Jabu and Justin seem to be on-point throughout all three, especially 'Creo'.
'Magnolia Soul' is an interesting entry because it's almost completely straight funk. Not much dilution, just straight hip hop infused funk similar to The Breakestra or Quantic Soul Orchestra. The track is inspired by New Orleans with overt references to Katrina.
Rounding out the album is 'La Temperatura' a blast of a song, all about having fun reminiscent of 'La Misma Cancion' or 'Mi Alma' from previous albums. 'When I Close My Eyes' answers the question of what an all ska/punk Ozomatli track would sound like (hint: not bad). 'La Segundo Mano' acts as one last push of hip hop with Jabu shining a little brighter still. And 'Violeta' starts out as one of Ozomatli's signature somber ballads, but ends up with a fun sing-along chorus:
"¿Y tu mama que dice? / Tu hermano y tu papa, / ¿Que dicen? / ¿Tu hijo y tu marido que dicen? / Los nietos, tu abuela, / Dime que te dicen."
'Don't Mess with the Dragon' is a must-have for anyone who has listened to Ozomatli in the past. It's also an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the group. It's fun, irreverent and most importantly it's all about the party.