Three years ago, I thought Little Brother was going to finally save hip hop this time for real. I was in my junior year of college in the insufferable frozen abyss only known as Syracuse, New York (Word to my fellow Orange...men...) and by the miracle of the internet, I came across three post-Native Tongue underground rappers from North Carolina by the names of Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh and Ninth Wonder, y’all when I “borrowed” a copy of The Listening from Soulseek. One listen later and I was singing the praises to everybody who had a remote interest in hip hop, brothers, or things of smaller nature. My co-worker, Shawn, who was a DJ that hosted the late night hip hop show at Syracuse’s local top-40 radio station must have got sick to death of me playing that record at work over our stereo system in hopes that he would wise up and play the damn record over the radio instead of say, Ciara. It didn’t work. Say what you want to say about Little Brother as artists but The Listening is a fantastic record in both it’s simplicity and humor but the aspect of the record that really drew me towards it was the fact the “homegrown-where-the-fuck-did-these-dudes-come-from” aesthetic that permeated that first album. I loved the fact that I couldn’t tell if this was a legitimate record or three guys in their basement fucking around seeing if they could make a rap record. It reminded me of a certain rap group and not who you might think. It didn’t remind me of a Tribe, De La, or Black Star record but rather the first Wu-Tang album. Even though, Wu-Tang and Little Brother are just about polar opposites in terms of region, sound and subject matter, it was the “Do It Yourself” raw, unrefined Fruity Looped sound of The Listening that made it seem like the natural heir to the gutter hiss-kick, and unrefined sound of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Three years later, Little Brother didn’t save hip hop (honestly I must have been high or something). Their follow-up album, The Minstrel Show, despite being the most important rap record being released since The Listening save for Fishscale and maybe, Graduation, flopped like it was a U-God solo (well maybe, not that bad) and hip hop miraculously got worse than even its most devoted detractors could gleefully possibly imagine. It’s become painfully apparent that hip hop has no desire to be saved since it’s much more interest its own self-destruction than an actual return to it’s dominance. Little Brother, themselves, have self-destructed since then when they got dropped from Atlantic Records and when Ninth Wonder left the group apparently over the fact that he and Phonte couldn’t get along when playing checkers on their tour bus or some other bullshit. This left Phonte and Big Pooh to soldier on with the group despite it being obvious to everybody alive that they should just quit when they were ahead and go solo (or rather Phonte go solo and Big Pooh go to McDonald’s) rather than ruin the legacy of the first two records by dropping their Love Movement. Pooh and Phonte pressed on anyway and now The Getback is here. So what’s the deal? Is the record any good or is it the inevitable train wreck everybody is expecting it to be?
Well, it turns out Getback isn’t half-bad. It’s actually pretty good if not anything spectacular. Kudos, Tiggalo. First off, the record wisely eschews a lot of the fat and is a relative, trim and clean 11 tracks and a breezy 48 minutes and 33 seconds long. If there is one problem with modern rap albums today (well other than the general copious amount of suck) is that most rap albums today are waaaaaaay too long. I’m sorry, I can only listen to so many mindless death threats, queasy sex raps, ganja toter infested posse cuts and overwrought love jams before I start to get sick to my stomach and make out with the toilet seat. I mean there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Luckily, LB follows a recent trend that Common and Kanye have been going with in making shorter, leaner albums and in this case, it works in The Getback’s favor. Shorter albums lend to an easier and more thorough listen since you don’t have to wade through as many filler tracks than you would on your standard “paint-by-numbers” rap album.
The biggest problem that many foresaw for the new album was that since Ninth Wonder was the group’s producer and primary architect for the Little Brother’s signature sound that Getback would severely suffer from Ninth’s absence. Say what you want about Phonte and Big Pooh, they are both solid but not exactly the world’s most dynamic emcees so it didn’t exactly bode well that the most talented member of the group was leaving because of “creative” difference. It was feared that the group was going to jettison their underground roots and make a pandering, commercial record ala the Black Eyed Peas when they decided they needed a white girl with a penchant for peeing her pants in public for Elephunk. Well, the record wisely finds common ground in the middle. Getback is easily their most accessible record. It isn’t nearly as rough and “fruity-looped” as The Listening and it rids itself of the self-righteous undertones of The Minstrel Show. In fact, Getback is basically a party record. On songs like the Denaun Porter produced “ExtraHard,” Nottz produced “Two Step Blues” and the underrated lead single “Good Clothes” show a less pretentious, fun side of Little Brother that always bubbled under the surface of their first two albums but wasn’t explored fully. Little Brother always had a humorous, irreverent side that always got downplayed because of their “Captain Save-A-Hip-Hop” pretensions. Personally, I never really felt that image that got forced on them didn’t really fit. They never were and have never really been “conscious” rappers in the same sense that Common, Mos or Talib are but rather fit into this weird sphere in which they can make a record as weird and hilariously ignorant as “Cheatin” and then come back with something as heart felt as poignant as “All For You.”
However, whats cool about this record is that despite the fact that its an accessible, party record and Ninth Wonder only produces the somewhat underwhelming Lil’ Wayne collabo “Breakin’ My Heart” on the album, the album sounds like it’s a Little Brother record. All of the album’s producers do a good job channeling the signature Ninth Wonder sound especially Ninth Wonder disciples’ Illmind and Khrysis, the True Master and 4th Disciple of the Justus League. Khrysis produces “After The Party” which sounds absolutely amazing and is by far, the album’s best track. Khyris employs a slinky high pitched synths and otherworldly strings and guitars to create a vivid sound scape that matches Pooh and Phonte’s depiction of a scene at a well, an after party. For Illmind, this serves as something of a coming out party for him. He produces four tracks on including “Good Clothes” as well as album highlight “That Ain’t Love.”
As for for the actual rapping, its what we have come to expect from Little Brother at this point. Phonte shines and Pooh is kind of there. Phonte has proven to be consistently a strong emcee with a penchant for telling stories with an everyman flair. His verse on “Can’t Win For Losing” is an album highlight in which he breaks down his motivations for making music and why no matter what he does he just finds himself back at point zero. As for Pooh, he’s not wack per se but he seems to be an artistic cipher in the sense that he isn’t really doing anything particularly that stands out but he doesn’t exactly take away from the song, either. It would’ve been nice if Pooh could progress as an emcee as opposed to riding on Phonte’s coattails at this point in his career.
This record ain’t perfect as it does have a misstep or two which shows when you have a record this short. The Hi-Tek produced “Step It Up” is either a big joke in the vein of “Cheatin” or the cheesiest song that Little Brother has ever made. “Step It Up” is a pandering, queasy commercial love jam in a “Hit You From The Back” key. This is the type of a sickness inducing record that rappers make when they are making your standard cover-all-bases commercial album that rappers make when they are confused on who they want to be. The only reason why I’m hesitant to truly condemn it is because I’m not sure if this meant as a parody. Its not quite as blatant as “Cheatin” but the “Baby, do want a massage” crooned refrain is just ridiculous enough that ‘Tay might be channeling Percy Miracles one last time for our enjoyment.
Ultimately, Getback is a strong record even if it isn’t quite on the level of their first two records. What was so awesome (and what pissed so many people off) about The Minstrel Show is that a knowing sense of the importance of the message they were saying. Minstrel Show was a message record that knew, aspired and wanted to be a message record and it’s message was both timely and prophetic. Ringtone rap and the stereotypical gross images that it presented were just starting to grow prevalent when that album was released. Getback lacks that urgency of that record but that is exactly why it maybe the most accessible record they’ve made yet. I contend if you aren’t a Little Brother fan before because of their arrogance and pretensions they held before than you might actually end up really enjoying this record. Still dope beats, and rhymes. This is what you want.