The story of Little Brother’s major label disappointment is one common in hip-hop, a genre fueled by outsized egos and unrealistic expectations. Little Brother’s first LP, The Listening, unleashed a fury of buzz and garnered ecstatic praise from the likes of Pete Rock and Questlove. Their major label debut, 2005’s The Minstrel Show, sold meagerly in its first week, and after a flap with BET kept the video for its lead single off the air, was largely ignored. To make things worse, the group lost its deal with Atlantic as well as the full-time services of producer 9th Wonder, who parted ways with Little Brother earlier this year. Little Brother’s new album is titled Getback, but it remains unclear what exactly these guys are getting back to. Getting back to being the kings of Southern-bred conscious rap, a la The Listening? Or getting back to the bold assault on the misogynist, racist underpinnings in hip-hop culture of The Minstrel Show? The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, with an added element of Behind the Music-style psychodrama.
On Minstrel Show Big Pooh and Phonte rapped with unearned arrogance about all the problems they saw as epidemic within hip-hop culture. This time around, Little Brother comes at us with a little more experience, humility, and gravitas, broaching subjects largely unexplored in hip-hop while continuing to battle hip-hop’s obscene status quo of misogyny, violence, and drugs. The lives of the African-American working-class as well as the fallout occurring after a rapper goes less than platinum provide much of the fodder for Phonte and Pooh’s charismatic, often self-deprecating rhymes.
The first song on Minstrel Show was called “Beautiful Morning,” and on it Pooh rapped with a confidence he probably finds embarrassing now: “Coattails getting heavy because I’m living my dream.” Getback opens with the apocalyptic textures “Sirens,” in which Pooh angrily conjures the worsening plight of his race and Phonte rails against the “psychological warfare” of rap videos. But a song like “Can’t Win for Losing” is more successful because Pooh and Phonte shift the critical eye onto themselves, rehashing the events around Minstrel Show‘s belly-flop to the album’s best beat, a melancholy piano loop, and chipmunked female vocals.
The middle of the album sags from a set of poorly produced songs about less dramatic subjects, and Pooh and Phonte are unable to rise above their quotidian subject matter. The exception is “Two-Step Blues,” an anthem for the kind of African-American who works all week at a nine-to-five in anticipation of a big night partying at the VFW community center, two-stepping to old Maurice White hits. That’s a world rarely seen in mainstream hip-hop, and Little Brother genuinely celebrates it without a hint of parody.
Half the time the formula works beautifully, and Little Brother is able to provide some compelling, thought-provoking hip-hop. Hip-hop is most certainly not dead and nowhere near dying, and, as Getback shows, neither is Little Brother. Pooh and Phonte put a resolute stamp on their new personas as hardened hip-hop veterans, devoted not to cash, bling, or status, but the complexities of an art form that brought them out of obscurity and made them representatives of a people rarely spoken for. On the album’s finale, Pooh raps, “I know it sounds like an ending, but this is a beginning,” and given the difficulty and originality of Getback, one wants to believe him.