For a few years now, Kanye West, Common and other “conscious MCs” have been futilely trying to save hip hop from some intangible, evil force. They renounce the “ghetto” attitude and its tendencies with feverous rhymes and embarrassing political outcries. Ironically, rapping about how much you hate thugs and their lifestyle is still rapping about thugs and their lifestyle.

Little Brother gets thrown into the mix with early Talib Kweli and Mos Def as one of the few who actually got it right. The Minstrel Show, Little Brother’s latest release, bases its tracks in classical hip-hop themes: love, cheating and racial tension. The obviously sensitive subject matter – clearly laid out by the album’s title – is preceded by a brief explanation from the group. They wisely lay their intentions on the table and clear the slate of any presumptions.

The Minstrel Show is a concept album that gives remembrance to the deeply troubling minstrel shows of old. The album is filled with countless skits and asides about slavery and the strengths of the group’s ancestors. “Welcome to the Minstrel Show” introduces the fake television station and the actors (rappers Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder) running the show.

Beyond its conceptual aspects, The Minstrel Show has tight, succinct beats with politically restrained lyrics. “The Becoming” displays the MCs’ rhyming skills as they boast: “But still rated second to none / I’m everything you want to be but yet to become.” Little Brother slows the album with “Cheatin’,” an R. Kelly-parroting escapade without the sexually explicit lines and hypnotic melodies.

While The Minstrel Show is clearly smarter than anything recent hip hoppers have released in a while, it is certainly not another Quality or Black On Both Sides. Little Brother manages to put together a cohesive group of tracks with the intelligence that Kanye keeps begging everyone else to say he has. It’s a shame that Little Brother is just restating everything our friends in Black Star already said.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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