J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Now Departing: Little Brother - Get Back

Little Brother

Get Back
(ABB ; 2007)

Hip-hop isn't different from any other genre of commercial music. It has its money-making, dull and lifeless pop side, with notable exceptions from time to time that test the market. It also has its contrarian, sometimes lifeless but often buoyant underground. As much as there are commercially successful artists who push the boundaries, there are also underground champions that step into the waters of commercialization - artists who have one foot in the pop spectrum, but enough savvy to keep the other foot in the intellectual and critical underground. Two sides of the same coin - one just tends to bring home more bacon.

Durham, North Carolina's Little Brother has languished in the latter of those two sides since their debut record, only to find the commercial success (and availability) of that first album less than appealing. ("Dropping the classic album motherf------ couldn't find" as Phonte put it on their last album.) Their leap to Atlantic Records for their second album seemed promising, but instead they delivered The Minstrel Show, an overreaching, but spottily brilliant concept album. Being back on original distributor ABB for the release of their third album seemed to mark a retreat from the goals of commercial crossover. It also didn't help that founding member/DJ/producer 9th Wonder split from Little Brother earlier in the year. The sound that 9th had crafted as a member of the group had won him production accolades all across the board, landing him production jobs in numerous places outside of the confines of Little Brother. The questions about how this would affect the group's sound were prevalent. The worries are simple: the album either needed to break through on a commercial level, or it needed to re-invigorate their underground credentials. Instead, despite the numerous producers, it holds place as a worthy, though not quite as good, successor to their first two albums.

The album opens with "Sirens," a hard-spitting track that leads off with a tasty funk/Southern rock lick that feels just right for a Southern hip-hop group. "Back independent / 'cause the kids I wouldn't cater" raps Big Pooh, already on the defense from questions about their departure from the majors. "I refuse to be hip-hop's pallbearer," Phonte later asserts, laying out a list of societal woes and criticisms of hip-hop from the general (white) public. It's the most political track on the record, and opening the album with it, while sonically a smart idea, sets the listener up for a tone that just doesn't continue through the album. "Can't Win for Losing" follows on its heels with production that echoes the Roots both in its organic sound and lyrical theme of the Roots' "In the Music." Together, these two songs make for a great opening tandem.

The album then sets off on its narrative bent: for most of the record, songs are connected together with miniature skit-like bits that are tacked onto the end of tracks rather than set up as their own cuts. The skits that follow each song serve to introduce the next song, and while sometimes amusing, or at least interesting, in the long run only serve to drag the album down and weight songs that should have been able to float on their own. A hip-hop album with only 11 tracks shouldn't feel quite this long - it clocks in at just under 50 minutes, but feels longer because of the broken up fluidity of the skits.

"Good Clothes" brings back the humor that Little Brother have always shown. Their albums always bring a light-hearted feel at times with well-placed songs that lighten the mood of heavier tracks. The following track, "After the Party," continues this trend at first, but gets into more serious mode later on as the self-deprecating side of Phonte comes out, again a welcome part of their lyrical side. Only so much braggadocio is bearable in music. "Two Step Blues" is also an interesting, jazz-inflected song that looks back in time to the days of Phonte's father to inspire a more classic-sounding song.

Sadly, that's where the album sort of hits a wall. The last three songs are good, but nothing to write home about and ends on more of a whimper than a bang. Why couldn't the album at least be bookended with explosive songs? It opens well, but fails to close in a similar way. Artists and bands tend to front load records, but over time I've noticed that the best records close as well as they open. If you want people to take your album seriously, as opposed to just your singles, it's a necessary detail.

As much as I would love to see Little Brother have bounced back from the departure of 9th Wonder with a record that proved that they were either the commercial or creative powerhouse I've always thought they were just shy of being, they haven't done that with this record. Whether it was out of fear of moving too much away from their signature sound in pursuit of either of those goals, or whether it was just an honest attempt at stepping their well-honed game up another notch, I don't know. They may have painted themselves into a corner they can't get out of, and while the results are another fine and enjoyable record, it's not the legendary one I'd hoped they had in them.

Rating: I(nteresting)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Decide For Yourself:

Little Brother - "Sirens"

Little Brother - "Good Clothes"

Little Brother - "Two Step Blues"

Hear more from the record at Little Brother's Myspace page.

Download other music by Little Brother from EMusic.

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