Little Brother | Record Review | Indy Week

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Little Brother

(ABB Records)




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Rapper Big Pooh takes the first verse on Getback, the third album from Durham's Little Brother and the first they've recorded since being dropped from major label Atlantic Records and parting ways with longtime producer and third member 9th Wonder.

This should come as a bit of a shock: Post-Atlantic and sans-9th, Little Brother has doubters looking for faults early and often. They have something to prove. Pooh is generally written off as the lesser of Little Brother's two emcees, but, burdened here, he's mad as hell. Pooh treats his verse and Illmind's sweaty, wah-wah bounce with a bullwhip: "Most black folks live below the poverty line/ And they wonder why the fuck we attracted to crime/ Got niggas shootin' niggas at the drop of a dime/ Babies in the street, dyin' before their time." Phonte matches him, explicating and excusing the story of Little Brother's lost record deal in six concise lines, then launching a grammar-driven philippic against those who blame hip hop for violence and ill will.

The best parts of Getback sound a lot like this beginning—intense, impassioned, studied and sort of irritated. Again over a beat from Illmind (the New Jersey producer has the most here with four), Phonte and Pooh aggress their way through "That Ain't Love," telling tales of the ungrateful and unfaithful with a gritty, betrayed menace. Along with Durham emcee Jozeemo, who lands a perfect closing shot, they end each verse with a mantra: "I've been misconstrued, lied to and abused." They're like jazz soloists vamping from the same head. Little Brother is fighting self-doubt on every front—women, friends, making music, heritage. For the best parts of Getback, Phonte and Pooh sound very thirsty.

Indeed, Little Brother feels more street-level here, more engaged with life than on 2005's The Minstrel Show, an album that offered LB a legitimate chance at stardom. Looking back, LB already sounded preemptively nostalgic for their home state or, at the very least, the good ol' days. Here, they're surrounded by home and its troubles. Trading a verse with an apologetic, almost sweet Lil' Wayne over the only 9th Wonder beat here, Little Brother spins a plea for all the boys trying to convince a girl they're worth keeping during "Breakin' My Heart." They talk about the clothes they're wearing, the education they accepted or refused, and the late-night runs to Cook-Out on Capital Boulevard. Getback feels a lot like what it is, then—a declaration from the survivor's new encampment rather than a proclamation from an offense's front lines. On debut The Listening, the confidence was a mix of youthful exuberance and low expectations, while The Minstrel Show was a charge from a band that was a few marketing moves away from mainstream fulfillment. "Beautiful Morning" was about owning a day even without birdsong and sunshine, and "The Becoming" painted a picture of average dudes who'd beaten most of the odds since picking up hip hop. Phonte and Pooh certainly carry swagger into Getback, but it seems more like proof-of-life boasting than take-over promising. On "Can't Win for Losing," Phonte and Pooh talk about the things they had to insulate themselves from to keep this going—family, friends, Durham, doubt. Essentially, as they recognize over the closing credits on the last track, they're glad to be able to say, "We're still here."

This isn't necessarily a criticism: Some dismissed The Minstrel Show as offering a provocative title with no commentary of substance. But the delivery was in the first-person details of the rhymes, where real dudes did real things instead of dealing a sensationalist gimmick to sell records. Little Brother occasionally poked fun at black stereotypes. On Getback, they hint at apology, balancing newly nuanced social- and self-criticism.

"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 all the same/ I can't say I'm allowed to judge/ I'm just glad to see you/ 'Cuz truth be told/ If my records never sold, and I wasn't raised this bold, nigga/ I'd probably be you," raps Phonte over the brilliant "Dreams." He castigates two strata at once: The skits here parody Little Brother (Phonte's conscience informs him, "Maybe you should just say something nice ... You're not fucking tonight") more than anything else. While "Good Clothes" ribs people in dance clubs wearing clothes too nice (leather jackets) or too tight ("Better go to Lane Bryant"), the implicit commentary is self-directed: Phonte and Pooh used to have to swindle retail store friends for good deals, but now, with only a modicum of success, things are different, even if they're not that famous. Phonte is reminding himself to be grateful, and—back on an independent label—it's a good look. Little Brother knows how tough anything can be.

Ultimately, Getback functions just fine as a transition album, showing that Pooh and Phonte still have plenty to offer and plenty of room to grow. They can work with eight producers and carry the same chemistry they've shared from the start. Phonte is still one of the funniest writers around, and Pooh—who shows an unusual determination here—still struggles when he tries to play nice. Not perfect, not brilliant, but proof of much more than life.

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