Like many forthright, independent-minded hip-hop acts, Durham, N.C.’s Little Brother didn’t survive the stress of being signed to a major label.
When it came down to it, LB’s first release on Atlantic Records, 2005’s The Minstrel Show, wasn’t an easy sell to a music buying public accustomed to consuming ringtone-ready raps. The album was a racially charged conceptual effort that defied music corporations for promoting stereotypes and the black hip-hop acts that played along. But while Atlantic may or may not have been stumped by how to handle the righteousness of Little Brother’s ideologies, their original label, ABB, seems to serve as a more apt home for their third album, Getback — a compact, filler-free return to soulful hip-hop with occasional hints of humor.
Just as Little Brother’s relationship with Atlantic failed after recording The Minstrel Show, so did MCs Phonte and Big Pooh’s chemistry with their producer 9th Wonder. Even though many assumed 9th’s Fruity Loops-born beats were the backbone of the LB sound, his production really isn’t missed on Getback. Of course, on 9th Wonder’s sole contribution, the Lil Wayne-assisted love joint “Breakin’ My Heart,” his chipmunk soul sound fits perfectly. Conversely, working with beatsmiths Denaun Porter, Nottz, and especially Illmind proves to be an inspiring step for Phonte and Pooh. The aforementioned producers’ work isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it does give the pair of MCs some needed sonic breathing room.
Since debuting in 2003 with The Listening, LB has steadily moved beyond just rapping about rapping to being able to capture the ups-and-downs of existing in the music industry and the repercussions it has on daily life. On “This Is Love,” Illmind’s relaxed, soul-inspired track sees Phonte and Pooh sit back and reflect on the stress family and friends have added to being recording artists. Then on the next cut, “Dreams,” atop Rashid Hadee’s horn-soaked production, the MCs further delve into explaining to everyone from their mom to dudes on the corner back home why they do this hip-hop shit. In an especially striking moment, Phonte captures the struggles of confronting the cats on the corner: “When I hang with them, they ask me if The Minstrel Show means I’m ashamed of them/Well, I can’t say that I’m proud/But on the same, can’t say I’m allowed to judge.”
There’s little doubt that Getback is Little Brother’s most reflective work to date. Even when Phonte and Pooh aren’t tackling their personal situations on wax, they’re heatedly defending hip-hop against the culture’s most misinformed critics on the hard-hitting opening track, “Sirens.” Thankfully, however, they don’t get completely caught up in weighty matters. On another Illmind produced joint, “Good Clothes,” LB creates an upbeat flashback anthem about doing whatever they could back in the day to ditch their hand-me-downs and cop the best name-brand gear. In typical Little Brother fashion, they throw in a few wisecracks, busting on ridiculously dressed club-goers. Another feel-good offering, the Darien Brockington-assisted “Two Step Blues,” is dedicated to the steppers and is the most R&B-flavored offering of the album.
In retrospect, seeing late-twentysomethings and even thirtysomethings at a Little Brother show is no surprise, because their music, particularly with Getback, deals with grown-man realities – and, in instances such as “Two Step Blues,” grown folks fun. Not to say that the “TRL” generation can’t get down, but with this album Phonte and Big Pooh prove that they are indeed today’s answer to the golden era groups like Pete Rock & CL Smooth that inspired them in the first place. Even with 9th Wonder off the squad, the rappers push forward and help lead mature hip-hop to new heights.
— Max Herman