In the carnivorous, dog-eat-dog world of hiphop, life expectancy is best measured in canine years. The constantly reinventing genre boasts more past lives than a dime-store psychic—”history” becomes anything that happened more than 24 hours ago. That said, Naughty by Nature’s previous two releases, 19 Naughty III (1993) and Poverty’s Paradise (1995), have damn near become musical artifacts. The group’s de facto front man, Treach, is obviously hip to this fact. He has said that the goal of the group’s first offering in five years, Nineteen Naughty Nine: Nature’s Fury, is to introduce Naughty by Nature to the new generation of hiphop fans—”people who were 8 to 10 years old” when NBN dropped its first release.

NBN has never produced outstanding CDs. Unlike A Tribe Called Quest, whose liquid jazziness segues from one track to the next, or the reigning verbalists of Wu-Tang, who construct dense, unrelenting sounds tailor-made for their assaults of metaphors and similes, NBN has never excelled at creating an aural landscape and then extending it from one effort to the next. But more than any of its contemporaries, NBN was able to create pop-oriented hiphop while maintaining street credibility. None but the original ghetto bastards could have pulled off a soothing sing-along like “Hip Hop Hooray” and followed it up with the boulevard paean “Uptown Anthem” without being laughed off the street corner.

From Day One, NBN was a marketing department’s wet dream: an essentially hardcore group that would never have to do penance for crossing over. If it failed to make outstanding CDs, it could always deliver sublime singles that would persuade fans to invest in the entire unit. But alas, success succeeds too well. Treach’s scowling grill has been seen everywhere from fashion runways to the premiere cover of Vibe magazine to cameo slots on Fox’s Living Single. Everywhere, that is, but in front of a microphone delivering his trademark staccato compound rhymes. While the group’s been away, the ghetto has fallen into the hands of hiphop’s young guns—people who were 8 to 10 when NBN first arrived. And true to the words of every burned-out, broken-down Confederate, the South has risen again—only this time, it’s risen in the form of Master P’s New Orleans-based No Limit mob and the dazzling ensemble of cliques bubbling up from Atlanta.

Nature’s Fury is a not a brilliant release; it’s weak and disjointed. But, like a used car that doesn’t work, the CD has some parts that are in excellent running condition. The charismatic edge that initially seemed to define the group’s appeal is muted—practically opaque—this time out. In the space of 16 tracks (including intros), Nature’s Fury features old-school hiphop, R&B-suffused grooves, and flashes, on a few cuts, of what can only be described as the Dirty South style. But ultimately, the presence of no fewer than 14 guest artists makes the record hard to grasp conceptually; nearly every title has the word “feat.” for “featuring” inked in next to it.

Things start out well enough. The introductory “Ring the Alarm” weds a plaintive dance-hall chorus to the user-friendly production of KayGee, NBN’s chief sonic engineer. It’s also clear from the get-go that Treach has adapted his rhyme flow, delivering fewer words per minute, the advantage being that his abundant skills at wordplay and pun get the attention they deserve. The adaptation also enables him and co-verbalist Vinnie to play off of each other’s delivery effectively.

Yet if the first track gets on base, the subsequent songs don’t really put it in scoring position. “Dirt All by My Lonely,” passes as a street epic, and “Holiday” respectably reworks “A Lover’s Holiday,” but “Live or Die,” a collaboration between the trio and Louisiana wordslingers Silkk the Shocker and Mystikal, is a flatliner. The midtempo keys and ominous whispered chorus work well, but Silkk and Mystikal’s countrified enunciation grates against the brick-city ghettoism of Treach and Vinnie.

“On the Run,” a semi-cover of Public Enemy’s classic “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” recasts the familiar scenario of being harassed by police for driving while black. It’s a testament to Public Enemy’s visionary junkyard aesthetic that NBN uses “Miuzi” to underwrite its own efforts 12 years later. “Radio” continues the old-school theme, hijacking the opening sequences from Run-D.M.C.’s “King of Rock” and LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and tethering them to a minimalist, bass-led track. But unless you’re willing to wade through mediocrity, the CD begs you to skip the middle songs.

The combination of florid-sounding R&B sounds on “We Could Do It” and “The Blues” simply clashes with the Southernism of “Wicked Bounce” and “Live Then Lay.” For the second half of Nature’s Fury, the trio sounds, in essence, like everyone but itself. Is it me or does Vinnie actually affect a Southern accent in the early verses of “Wicked Bounce”? And does NBN sound like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on the track right after it?

Not until the terminal cut, “The Shivers,” does NBN return to form. The group scores (with an assist from Chain Gang Platune) by turning in a straight-up, testosterone-laced anthem in the best tradition of boulevard trash-talking. KayGee’s delicious piano-and-bass cocktail underscores Treach’s high-wattage exercise. This is one of the few times that Treach runs roughshod over a track, tampering with syllables and meter. Ultimately, “The Shivers” highlights what’s missing from the balance of the record. CP