Even if it didn't arrive five years after its predecessor, The Pharcyde's Plain Rap would still linger in the long shadows cast by the group's groundbreaking first two albums, 1992's gleefully irreverent Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and 1995's winningly grown-up Labcabincalifornia. But it must also deal with competition from an unlikely source: former member Fatlip's recent single "What's Up, Fatlip?," a harrowing tale of youthful promise gone awry that raises hip-hop self-pity to tragicomic levels, addressing the rapper's fall from grace with brutal honesty and pitch-black humor. It's a remarkable, keenly vulnerable song, enhanced by Fatlip's ragged, lisping flow, and it possesses what the group's comparatively slick comeback album sorely lacks: personality and a clear artistic vision. Sonically, Plain Rap picks up where Labcabin left off, and at its best ("Rush," "Guestlist," "Frontline"), it recaptures that album's sophisticated sonic slinkiness, if not its lyrical brilliance. Too often, however, Plain Rap sounds like what Labcabin's detractors unfairly accused it of being: mature and adult to the point of sounding hopelessly dull. "World" is the worst offender, abandoning Labcabin's philosophical and intellectual wandering in favor of desperate-sounding R&B backup vocals and pretentious spoken-word blathering. "Misery" comes in a close second, attacking Fatlip for "destroying the good vibes" with all the personality and passion of a corporate form letter, while the obligatory ode to the group's sticky green muse, "Blaze," just sounds arbitrary. Of course, even a sub-par Pharcyde album has its virtues, and Imani Wilcox, Booty Brown, and Slimkid Tre's distinctive flows and sharp production prevent Plain Rap from devolving into a disaster. But where Bizarre Ride and Labcabin felt ahead of their time, Plain Rap feels like the end of an era. This time, it's the hip-hop world that's passing it by.