Little Brother: Getback

As southern-born practitioners of traditional, sample-based NY hip-hop, Little Brother has always been a square peg in an industry full of holes. In 2003 MCs Phonte and Big Pooh, along with Producer 9th Wonder, established North Carolina as the next surrogate home to the boom-bap with their debut, The Listening. Proudly claiming they were the younger siblings of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and EPMD during the era of southern dominance was ballsy, but endeared them to a legion of fans that remained faithful to H.E.R. Two years later their indie label ABB struck a deal with Atlantic records to release their sophomore effort, The Minstrel Show. Much like Nas’ Hip-Hop is Dead, the title garnered more attention than the music. Rumored beef with BET also helped distract from the brilliance of songs like “Watch Me” and “All For You.” The major-label stamp of the house that Ray Charles built made little difference in their sales, despite the overwhelming critical acclaim of the project. Further complicating things, the two MCs parted ways with their co-founder and producer adding to the tragically long list of rapper/producer splits. While only the group members know the real reason they split, fans can only guess that a business which favors cookie cutter beats from multiple sources was not being kind to their throwback formula. To put things in perspective, the last commercially viable hip-hop album helmed by one sole producer was Kanye West’s College Dropout (2004), and even he gets help now. Before that? Clipse, Lord Willin’ (2002). You get the picture. Little Brother regrouped leaving Atlantic Records and transitioned via mixtapes like the DJ Drama hosted Separate But Equal and the Mick Boogie collab And Justus For All. Instant vintage like “Let It Go” and “Do It To Death” paved the way for their third studio long player, Getback (ABB).With talk of “where’s the beats?” taking center stage on the message boards, LB enlisted underground kings like Illmind, Hi-Tek, Denaun Porter, Nottz and Khrysis to put a fresh coat of gloss on Little Brother’s soul-stirring formula. As Phonte rhymed on DJ Spinna’s “Intergalactic Soul” in 2005, “...I can hear people talkin’ and they saying son is anxious to get up with some other strangers and make a couple changes…with some bass line snaps and plus some chord changes..” Nevertheless, these heralded boardsmen stayed within the Little Brother lane. The kicks may hit a little cleaner, the claps a little tighter and the bass rides out with the help of live Motif keyboards, but the essence is the same. Kicking in the door is the Illmind produced “Sirens.” Over a blaring Rare Earth sample Big Pooh continues to throw cold water on sleepers, leaving a flurry of N-Bombs in his wake: “They talk about us not using the word ‘ni**a’/ I wanna talk about some issues much bigger…back independent because to the kids I wouldn’t cater/Go against the system you in bed with Al-Qaeda.” Phonte adds his 8 cents on the state of the group and Hip-Hop as a whole: “Came back from NY, ni**a lost his deal/ Felt sick to his stomach almost lost his meal/Lost friends from way back and on top of all that, they tryin’ to blame rap for all of our ills…Them ain’t videos, ni**a, that’s psychological warfare/ 20 different variations of the same face/ designed to keep your broke ass in the same place..”“Can’t Win for Losing” finishes playing catch up for fans living under a rock, allowing LB to get to what they do best; documenting the highs and lows of the everyday struggle to make money, make love and make sense of it all. Coincidentally, the party starts with the 9th Wonder produced “Breakin’ My Heart” which features one of the laziest cameos Lil Wayne has ever done. However, their playful lament of infidelity is punctuated by bright, unfiltered claps instead of Wonder’s signature crunchy snare.Nottz and Hi-Tek help to ease the woes of the fairer sex on the musically superior “Two Step Blues” and “Step It Up” respectively. Both arrangements are lush with chopped soul and head-nodding drums but are complemented with trumpet solos and ethereal keys. On “Two Step Blues” Pooh takes their first single “Good Clothes” to the next level as he gets ready for the club: “Throw on some Stacy Adams and a sweater/Pull out the new coat with the leather/Headed straight to the lodge, old school is in charge, pull your derbies out with the feathers.” On the flipside, the Khrysis-produced “After The Party” shines a black light on the liquor stained reality of the club life. Essentially the sequel to “Life of The Party,” 'Te is recovering from a love hangover as he spits “…every weekend, me blowing my pay stub…with expensive ass liquor I don’t like the taste of.”Therein lays the true appeal of Little Brother. They aren’t afraid to make critical observations of a culture they actively participate in. Pooh and 'Te aren’t outsiders looking in; they are insiders trying to work it out. This point is driven home on “Dreams” where Tiggalo takes it to the corner. “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 that 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 as bold/ Ni**a, I would probably be you…”At a lean eleven cuts Getback is everything Little Brother fans appreciate with very little room for error. The legion of producers delivered a cohesive sound that simply gives a slightly more mainstream edge to LB’s blue collar vibe. Those familiar with the mixtapes may miss the heavyweight collabs from the likes of Supastition, Mos Def and Elzhi, but Phonte and Big Pooh shoulder that load. And that seems to be the point. As 'Te summarizes on the inspirational closing track, “When Everything is New,” “Had to get back to me, get back to mines/Get back to fam, get back to rhymes/Lay down at night and say without shame, ‘Today I was a man, and tomorrow I’ll be the same.” Mr. Sharpton, are you listening?SOUNDCHECK:Little Brother "Can't Win For Losing"Little Brother f/ Lil Wayne "Breakin' My Heart"