Typically, there are three types of classic hip-hop albums: the “blueprint album” is a perfect execution of beats and rhymes (Illmatic); the “avant-garde album” redefines the genre’s musical boundaries (Stankonia); and the “manifesto album” delivers a political and social message (It Takes a Nation of Millions). Little Brother’s highly anticipated sophomore LP, The Minstrel Show, the group’s first for a major, is not a classic in those ways, but its biting satirical poke at mainstream hip-hop and revival of true-school ideals and principles make it a sure standout. Over the past decade, mainstream hip-hop has presented an increasingly narrow view of the black experience, limiting the music to themes of drug dealing, gang banging and pimping. The Minstrel Show is a much needed statement about the unfulfilling rap music that masquerades as hip-hop.
The album picks up with WJLR Justus League Radio, the fictional radio station featured on the crew’s debut, 2003’s The Listening. The station gets purchased by the UBN (U Black Niggers) television network, which, in the concept behind the album, features a fictional variety show starring emcees Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder. Little Brother keeps the album cohesive with a series of hilarious skits (“5th and Fashion” and “Diary of a Mad Black Daddy”) that are only matched by those of De La Soul, the O.G.’s of interludes. In addition to the skits that lighten the mood, Phonte delivers a solo joint by his R&B alter-ego, Percy Miracles, titled “Cheatin’.” On the riotous remake of R.Kelly and Mr. Biggs’ “Contagious,” Miracles croons: “I look in her cell phone/ saw another man’s digits./ (Mr. Biggs:) Now, you must be trippin’/ ‘cause you know it’s not the same/ She called your from her mama house/ and maybe her number changed,/ (Percy:) No, she got the 2,000-minute plan, calling her minuteman.”
But the album’s real success comes in Little Brother’s addressing everyday social issues, most of which are overlooked by the mainstream. On “All for You,” the trio airs out issues about fatherhood. Unable to build a family and relationship with his baby’s mother, Phonte finds himself repeating the same path and cycle as his father, spitting: “So, pop, how could I blame you ‘cause you couldn’t maintain/ I did the same thing.” Little Brother takes a novel approach to the opposite sex on “Slow It Down,” talking about finding love rather than popping pussies. The song, which features the golden vocals of Darien Brockington, is highlighted by Pooh’s verse: “I am trying to man up/ see what’s really good with you/ gentleman’s approach/ not bringing hood to you.” On “Hiding Place,” featuring Elzhi of Slum Village, Little Brother falls back into battle-rap mode, proving in between industry critiques that they can still rip the mike.
The Minstrel Show’s detractors may criticize 9th Wonder’s production technique or Phonte’s and Pooh’s formulaic rhymes. But although 9th continues to use the Fruity Loops computer program, he is swiftly crafting a trademark production style a la DJ Premier or Marley Marl. In lieu of a million-dollar studio with an MPC drum machine and Pro Tools, 9th keeps it raw with an Apple computer and a crate of records. Phonte and Pooh may not the second coming of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, but they more than make up in intangibles such as mike presence, humility and chemistry.
In trying to knock hip-hop off the slippery slope toward irrelevance and self-destruction, Little Brother may be fighting a lost battle. But I hope this is the beginning of a trend toward major labels opening their rosters to more diverse clientele. The Minstrel Show may be too intelligent for this generation of hip-hoppers, but it will at least provide some food for thought. As Phonte says at the beginning of “Not Enough,” “I’m really at a loss for words, man. I don’t know what else I can say. I mean, dope beats, dope rhymes. This hip-hop ain’t really that hard.” If only it were that easy.