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You’d think that receiving a seal of disapproval from BET would be the best possible plug for an album titled The Minstrel Show. Word began traveling by dial-up and DSL in early September that the video for “Lovin’ It,” the breezy, Stylistics-sampling lead single from the major-label debut by North Carolina trio Little Brother, had been barred from a rotation that currently includes “PimpTight” and “Naked.” Although the cable network has since denied it, word on the street was that the music of producer 9th Wonder and MCs Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte was rejected for being “too intelligent.”
It’s true that BET has tended to favor MCs who wear chains and have their own clothing lines. And it’s not unlikely that station brass might be miffed that The Minstrel Show takes not-so-veiled shots at the Bob Johnson– founded media empire. One of the album’s motifs is the fictional UBN (for “U Black Niggas”)—which, of course, is a parody of UPN, which provides much of BET’s syndicated programming and shares a parent company in Viacom. Lines such as “[N]ow ‘Rap City’ looks like ‘Video Soul,’” from the disc’s “We Got Now” don’t help. The quip is more an indictment of other MCs than BET, but still: This isn’t the inoffensive radio-station setup of 2003’s The Listening.
This time, the big conceit is that hiphop entertainment is the new blackface, and though Pooh and Phonte engage in some obligatory self-deprecation, the concept has an underlying smugness. On some level, Little Brother realizes this. That fact is evident in the group’s many requests that we just appreciate the music for what it is. In the liner notes: “You don’t have to love Little Brother. You don’t even have to agree with them. Let em live, tho’.” On “Enough”: “Dope beats, dope rhymes what more do y’all want?” On “Still Lives Through,” a rugged track that borrows from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Oh My God”: “One day they giving you the thumbs up/The next, they tellin’ 9th to go and switch his drums up/The best, is what they expect/But why they won’t let the music just be what it is/Is anybody’s guess.”
You can’t really blame the guys for making those statements, just as you can’t really blame fans and critics for starting what seems to be a Little Brother backlash. Back when the trio was just another underground act, the solid, decade-hopping production of 9th and the thoughtful, Everyman lyrics of Pooh and Phonte were enough to garner praise. But now that the Justus League’s flagship artists have hopped to the majors, they’re expected to be heroes of hiphoprisy. Sure, as a work intended to at once expose and revive the hiphop industry, The Minstrel Show fails. But what album wouldn’t? Take away the expectation that the record is actually going to change anybody’s programming decisions and it’s an inspired piece of work—even a brilliant one.
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Little Brother is smart, funny, poignant, and self-aware, but also not afraid of a little raunch or boneheaded fun. Though hiphop has become a music of extremes—soulless thugs or righteous backpackers, materialism or anticonsumerism—Pooh and Phonte are like most of us: somewhere in the middle. They’re stripping rap of its caricatures and bringing back its humanity. Although the UBN skits are funny, it’s the good lyrics that get the job done. And 9th’s trusty mix of hard-hitting early-hiphop drums and smooth ’70s soul samples certainly doesn’t hurt.
“All for You” is a prime example of Little Brother’s magic. The track, about fathers, isn’t the usual “fuck you” to AWOL daddies that fills rap music. Pooh recounts a first “raw” conversation with his father at the age of 19; Phonte talks about coming to understand his dad’s absence after splitting from his own son’s mother. “Used to find it hard to believe, and I swore that I would/Always hold my family as long as I could, but damn/Our memories can be so misleading,” he raps. “It’s misery, I hate to see history repeating/Thought you were the bad guy, but I guess that’s why/Me and my girl split and my son is leaving.” It’s not feel-good stuff, for sure. But thanks in large part to 9th’s use of a sleepy Michael Franks sample and some crooning from the Justus League’s resident singer, Darien Brockington, it’s not an unmitigated downer, either. It’s simply a successful piece of narrative art: a pleasure to experience even in its depiction of pain.
“Slow It Down” handles romantic relationships with similar candor. The track has the feel of a ’60s or ’70s R&B track—9th uses a loop from David Ruffin’s “Slow Dance”—so it initially masquerades as a sappy, idealistic love song. But Pooh and Phonte’s lyrics are astringently honest, in particular Phonte’s confessions that “I want a girl, when I want a girl/And when I don’t want a girl, I want a girl that understands that.” The duo’s lyrical handling of women isn’t exactly sensitive on The Minstrel Show, but it is consistently insightful—and often hilarious. On “Slow It Down,” Pooh pays tribute to his lady love while puncturing the pretensions of others: “It’s a lot of independent women wanna be claimed/Marry into money and marry into fame, or at least give birth to a check.” On “Say It Again,” Phonte remarks, “Yo, my girl’s a grown woman who ain’t trynna get her eagle on/She’d rather be in the bed gettin’ her Kegel on.” In a rap song, the reference is as astounding as its relatively nonsalacious context.
Still, The Minstrel Show doesn’t entirely escape the scourge of all sophomore hiphop albums: too much talk of the shit the group had to eat to get where it is now. Rappers don’t seem to realize that laymen don’t care an awful lot about the ins and outs of the music industry, and Pooh and Phonte aren’t exceptions. “The Becoming” details Little Brother’s journey to semistardom, starting “back in ’99, when times was hard/North Carolina Central but we called it the yard.” (At least Phonte undercuts the college-as-prison connotation with the next line: “’Cause niggas wasn’t trying to study abroad/They was trynna study a broad or two or three up in the dorms.”) And “Beautiful Morning,” a chirpy, happy-go-lucky ditty that nonetheless features some of the album’s biggest-sounding drums, goes into how people are picking the group apart now that it has a little fame.
The song’s chorus—“Even though the birds ain’t singin’ and the sun ain’t shinin’/It looks like a beautiful morning”—asserts that success is sweet no matter what the haters say. That’s a sentiment any old 106th & Park rapper would agree with; the difference is that Little Brother doesn’t see success as an end unto itself. Later in the track, Phonte asserts, “The good Lord, I prayed to him/And he said, ‘Niggas is listening now’/So I better have something to say to ’em.” So what if that simple desire has some rather grandiose trappings? Wu-Tang isn’t seminal because black guys obsessed with kung fu is a vital cultural meld. Kool Keith isn’t great because Dr. Octagon and Black Elvis are awe-inspiring constructs. And De La Soul damn sure isn’t legendary because of those daisies. Concepts just hold a group or an album together; no matter how muddy they are, good music always shines through.CP