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written by Low Key
No matter what genre of music you listen to throughout its history there has always been those unique group of artists that transcended time, broke through barriers, revolutionize a particular sound or made an impact so big it changed the way music was looked at. Hip-Hop is no stranger to such occurrences, as our culture runs deep with such history. We have witnessed such revolutionary times through artists such as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Akrika Bambaataa, The Cold Crush Brothers, Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang & Melle Mel in Hip Hop's humble beginning's in the late 70's and early 80's. Then artists such as Run Dmc, LL Cool J, The Juice Crew, Boogie Down Productions, Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo, Eric B & Rakim & Public Enemy brought Hip Hop to the next level during it's golden age. As Hip Hop progressed during the early to mid 90's artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nas, Ice Cube, Wu Tang Clan & The Notorious B.I.G. became our new found legends bringing Hip Hop stability, respectability and longevity. The list can go on and on as we progress through the times but one thing is for certain, such influential artists have grown decreasingly smaller and smaller over the years. While we can certainty assume a new school list of similar sorts, saying the list would hold its weight against those of the past would be an overstatement. Many Hip-Hop critics sight such a downfall in Hip-Hop due to numerous factors, however one of the biggest is the lack of creativity and originality within new artists. Artists in the new millennium are not pushing the boundaries of the culture like those of the past. They are not being true to themselves or the culture, and definitely do not know where Hip Hop has been, thus nobody knows where Hip-Hop is going.
The year is 2003 and while artists such as Nas, Jay-z & Eminem are the cultures dominant figures, a new group is ready to take their spot as the next big thing and bring Hip Hop back to its essence. This group is none other than Little Brother. Sometimes a new group or artist comes along that just changes the way you look at music, Little Brother is this group. All of the characteristics that Hip-Hop is lacking in 2003, Little Brother possess. They are like a sound of the past, duplicated in 2003 only not depicting a sound that is stale; instead they are ahead of their time. Consisting of emcees Phonte & Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder, Little Brother is a three-man crew from North Carolina representing The Justus League. While they have only been officially together for a year, the group displays a unique sense of chemistry unparalleled in today's industry.
The past year or so they have set a huge buzz within the underground community, as they were quickly compared to a mix of A Tribe Called Quest with the "yin yang chemistry of Outkast". Their Native Tongue feel has had many old school and early 90's enthusiasts going crazy. Their music has been called many things, however most fitting is a breath of fresh air. At a time when Hip Hop is consumed with the same pungent smells, Little Brother comes out and not only brings a fresh new sound, they are automatically looked at as the next superstars to carry the torch for Hip Hop in the new millennium.
With a huge buzz and a growing popularity within the Hip Hop community, in maybe their biggest move to date, ABB Records scooped up the threesome and signed them to a multi album deal. With their debut album "The Listening" Little Brother not only live up to the hype but accomplish what many thought was the impossible, drop a certified classic. The term classic definitely gets thrown around a lot these days, but after hearing what Pooh, Phonte & 9th Wonder accomplish with "The Listening" one can only marvel at what they have accomplished.
There are so many aspects of "The Listening" that standout it is hard to dish it all out in one sitting. You will listen to the album over and over again only to realize new aspects you never realized before. One of the aspects that stands out with Little Brother is their unique ability to transform everyday occurrences and real life situations into mind-blowing songs. "Away From Me" is a heartfelt look inside the intimate worlds of Big Pooh and Phonte, who both discusses their own unique situations being away from that very special person in their life. For Pooh it is his brother who is incarcerated, discussing the hardships between them during their lifetime. While for Phonte it is a special dedication to his son, who isn't always able to be around due to his busy schedule with this Hip-Hop game. The intimate look is beautifully smoothed over by 9th Wonders luscious, sample filled production. Immediately following "Away From Me", we get another similar effort in the name of "Nobody But You".
"Nobody But You" is a soulful look inside the relationship aspect of Little Brother's lives. Much of "The Listening" is centered toward the aspect of woman and relationships. You will not find any corny thugged out tales of womanizing here, only the real life occurrences everyone can relate you, either negative or positive. However, don't expect any soft R&B enthused joints, Little Brother brings it to you real. You have the tales of "Whatever You Say" and "Shorty On The Lookout" that feature Pooh and Phonte in playa mode, or the groupie tales of "The Yo-Yo" where The LB find out what it's like with the females once you get on in the rap game.
Don't be quick to judge Little Brother as a softer sounding group, "The Listening" is filled with a vast amount of variety ranging in all levels. They can smooth is out with "The Way You Do It", sounding very similar to the glory days of ATCQ or bring it to you hard with "Nighttime Maneuvers". While "The Listening" is one of the most well rounded Hip-Hop albums to come out in years, unbelievably there are some tracks that stand above the rest.
The title track "The Listening" is a dedication to the Hip-Hop Culture past & present, and the aura it has lost. Phonte and Pooh both share their tales of what Hip-Hop used to mean to them and how it is perceived today. "I bought a brand new album today, decided to take it home kick off my shoes, relax and play, and spin it for the whole joint, cause I like to get the whole point, music is everything to me… are you listening, I took your LP to D.C. where some youngins gave me the LD on how it should be, make sure the beat knock to the trunk pop and everybody pause when you cruise down the block, roll down your windows and they ask what you playing, but don't nobody care what you saying". And as Phonte and Pooh perfectly state it, today it doesn't matter what you are saying because "niggas aint listening…nowadays its like niggas wanna play with it, they hear some good shit but don't stop to savor it". As you can tell both Pooh and Phonte are emcees who love the culture and like many are disgusted with the state it is in right now. "The Listening" is a classic Hip Hop song, as 9th Wonder even throws in the legendary horns from Pete Rock & CL Smooth's timeless masterpiece "T.R.O.Y.".
Along with "The Listening", the lead single "Speed" is the groups finest work, where both Pooh and Phonte come to grips with their fast paced life. It's definitely something we can all relate to. Both Pooh and Phonte paint vivid pictures of their hectic lifestyles dealing with the rap game, from Phonte "talking shit to his alarm clock cause he has to face this world of capitalistic onslaught and picking up his check which he only sees twenty percent of" to Pooh "trying to slow it down like Brand Nubian but hypnotic tunes like this always do him in". Of course it's 9th Wonder's production that catapults the track to classic status, as his soulful production is bliss to the ears. While the track is titled "Speed" 9th's production brings a calm feeling across to the listener, full of soul, drawn out by an ingenious sample and Q-Tip like snares. "Speed" would be the perfect video to showcase Little Brother's talent to the world.
As with any group, what blends everything together perfectly for Pooh and Phonte is 9th Wonder's magnificent production. It will be quite hard to find a better production debut in the last couple of years than the one 9th Wonder accomplishes on "The Listening". If it's that Native Tongue vibe you are looking for in the production area, than 9th Wonder is that in the 2003 form. His production is varied, original and captivating. It is all blended and smooth over with a touch of soul and distinct flavor. 9th's biggest asset is his keen ear for samples and magnificent digging techniques. You will not find any recognizable samples or over used loops. 9th Wonder is a true crate master, as his samples and record selection is so masterful you won't have a clue what the guy is sampling. You can tell the quality of a producer by many things, however their digging and sampling techniques are one of the best ways to judge a producer.
Probably the biggest surprise is 9th's choice of production tools. Most would assume he would go the classic route, however 9th even admits he only uses a computer for his production. While many with have assumptions about this considering the bad name behind computer enriched production, one shouldn't. 9th Wonder just proves that it doesn't matter what you use, it's how it sounds in the end. Not many newcomers can stand up to the production 9th presents on "The Listening".
While a lot of attention is focused on the production aspect of the album, Phonte and Big Pooh should garner as much focus themselves as they are great emcees independently and collectively. You can throw around just as much praise towards the lyrical and conceptual aspect of "The Listening" as the production side. Both emcee's posses something that is lacking within today's up and coming emcees, substance. You will not find any clever metaphors or ridiculous wordplay, just real emcees brining it back to the way it should be. They draw you in with their lovable personalities and charisma, and keep you listening through their personal experiences and true to life image. Nothing is manufactured; it's that pure essence of Hip-Hop the culture has been missing for years. While many have already drawn conclusions that Phonte is ultimately the better emcee, both are unique in their own sense. Phonte is the more lyrical side of Little Brother; sort of how Q-Tip was to A Tribe Called Quest and Pos was to De La Soul. But deep down we all knew that Tip and Pos were only as good as Phife/Ali and Dave/Mase were and vice versa. This is the sort of chemistry Pooh, Phonte and 9th posses.
On a personal note, there is not many times where an album or new artist has struck me the way Little Brother has. I am not one to give away high scores or hail anything a classic unless it is well deserved. Do not be mistaken, Little Brother is deserving of every praise, accolade and compliment thrown around. "The Listening" is one of those unique albums where you site down and say, "where do I begin". The beauty of it all is Little Brother is only getting started. Who knows what the future will hold for this threesome from North Carolina, but one thing is for certain, they will be around for a long time. And if Little Brother can keep putting out albums like this who knows, maybe in 10 years we will look back at "The Listening" and marvel at the classic album that started it all.