Many rap fans born at the close of the ’70s and the opening of the ’80s revere the early ’90s, an era that heard, among others, legendary groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest perfect their craft. Those who carry a fondness for that time and those acts have since sought newer groups, like the Roots and Black Star, hoping to find worthy successors to place in such elite company. That generation need not search any further, because three of their own, displaying a commensurate love of that bygone epoch, have emerged as the contemporary link to hip-hop’s fantastic past.
MCs Phonte, Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder are Little Brother, a Durham, N.C. based crew whose debut album, The Listening, is a tremendous achievement. The record is an 18-track affirmation of all that is great in hip-hop, with an array of excellent mic skills and superlative production that will enrapture fans and remind everyone why the Native Tongue family set the standard to which all groups should aspire.
Little Brother clearly understands this, and The Listening displays an interest in music and group chemistry that will remind many of hip-hop’s most revered groups. Little Brother’s sound should not be mistaken as boringly derivative or completely imitative, though. While The Listening’s smooth samples and mid-tempo beats are reminiscent of the sounds popularized by Little Brother’s forbearers, that attribute is evidence of the group’s influences, and tracks like “For You” and “Love Joint Revisited” will mollify any detractors eager to dismiss Little Brother as mimics.
9th Wonder not only wonderfully advances the art of sampling, but he also keeps The Listening interesting by blending many sounds and various styles while maintaining a consistent character. Common to all the beats is a pleasant tone that makes them readily accessible and engrossing. The record’s sonic quality is further enhanced by smooth transitions between songs that unite the LP, making it an hour-long narrative. In fact, The Listening becomes an unrelenting showcase for Little Brother’s talents and the album’s coherent yet varied musical narrative arc is characteristic of all great albums.
Phonte and Pooh, each with his own considerable ability and distinguishing style, both enhance and benefit from 9th’s excellent work. Phonte has a Black Thought-like presence, not as domineering but no less potent. He’s able to flow smoothly over all beats and his line, “Y’all ain’t wack / Y’all just sound wack rhyming after me” is unfortunately true for many other MCs. Pooh, however, is not afflicted by this problem and anchors the rhyming duo in the streets, delivering his verses with a gritty, unabashed style that sets Little Brother apart from lesser acts who would quickly claim Native Tongue lineage. LB might excite a specific niche, but they shouldn’t be pigeonholed as coffee house poets. In fact, attempts to do so are preemptively rebuffed on “The Yo-Yo,” a track that perfectly exemplifies the group’s lyrical dexterity.
They also shouldn’t be slept on, because Little Brother has produced a remarkable album, and if you don’t like The Listening, then you don’t like hip-hop. For weary fans, the search may be over.