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written by Tolu Jegede
“Dope beats. Dope rhymes. This hip hop ain’t really that hard.”
-Phonte, “Not Enough.”
Phonte’s being a little modest. Considering the circus that hip hop has become, we shouldn’t be surprised at how hard it is to make a good record. The argument is as old as time: how far are emcees willing to go for mainstream acceptance? Are emcees willing to tap dance for the almighty dollar even if it means looking like complete buffoons? And what about us as fans? What are we really telling the artists and ourselves when we’re willing to pay for albums that caricaturize the hip hop culture? Little Brother’s second album, The Minstrel Show, addresses these questions in a satire. I know, I know. You’re saying, “That’s cool and all, but does it bang?” In layman’s terms? Hell, yeah. With 9th Wonder’s flawless production and Big Pooh’s and Phonte’s witty rhymes, Little Brother has released a classic album.
Conceptually, the album is genius. From the members’ exaggerated grins on the album cover to the hilarious skits, it’s clear that Little Brother pokes fun at the caricatures that run the hip-hop industry. The title track, “Welcome to The Minstrel Show,” does exactly what it says, with guest crooner Yahzarah singing, “We’d like to welcome you to everything there is to know/ this is our life, this is our music, it’s our minstrel show.” Her sweet voice makes the message all the more powerful. Isn’t it ironic that rappers’ lives have become our entertainment? However, Little Brother shows no interest in preaching about the ills of the music business. 9th Wonder cuts the intro short and delves into the first hard-hitting track of the album, “Beautiful Morning.” The lush strings make this song stand out, prompting Big Pooh to deliver confident rhymes:
Got back to my work, cause I was penning on this piece last night
That’ll drive these niggas berserk
Tiggalo hit me up, “Pooh, it’s time to murk.”
Throw on a pair of sweats, A-1’s, white shirt
Headed back to the shop, back to the spot where the hits keep coming
Stack em up like bricks
Phonte doesn’t disappoint, either, as the song segues into another track, “The Becoming,” where he rhymes, “. . . and spit like my life depended on it/ I target you herbs/ on some teleprompter shit, I got you watching your words.”
Track after track, there isn’t a dud to be found. From the brooding vocals on “Hiding Place,” featuring Elzhi, who kills it, to the introspective “All For You,” where Phonte and Big Pooh deliver heartfelt verses to their absent fathers, the album shines with head-nodding beats and frank lyricism. Even the skits are hilarious. Everyone will be talking about the song “Cheatin,” in which Phonte parodies the bubble-gum R&B singers you find on the radio today. (It’s about time, because half of these singers cannot sing).
I can’t remember the last time I called an album a classic. Maybe such praise is too early. Maybe we need to wait to see if this album will hold weight in eight to 10 years. But considering Little Brother’s commentary about the carnival that hip hop has turned into, I cannot help thinking that in a few years, fans will look back on this album and smile with wonder.