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(Hall of Justus)
The North Carolina-based trio-turned-duo Little Brother burst on the indie rap scene almost a decade ago and now, with the release of their fourth and final album, LeftBack
, it's initially unclear whether Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh are leaving or making a comeback. But the abundance of breakup and botched courtship songs underlines the sadness of the record, suggesting that this is really more of an ending than a new begining. Both have had some success in their solo and side projects, but nothing quite approaching Little Brother's mid-aughts glory with the classic concept albums The Listening
(2003) and The Minstrel Show
(2005), cleverly conceived and executed parodies of black radio and TV, respectively. Next to those records, the two albums since the departure of prolific producer 9th Wonder, Getback
(2007) and this new one, are less musically distinguished and lyrically focused.
Though there's no obvious overarching aesthetic or subject on LeftBack
, failing relationships are a recurring topic, and a discernible melancholy (though less soulful than in the past) is hard to miss. The opener and lead single "Curtain Call
" makes the mood of closure plainly clear from the outset, with Pooh recapping the group's last few years: "Three became two but the party ain't stop/before the curtain close, before the music ends/had the time of my life, let me thank you again." Like a Freudian slip, though, the disorganized beat by Khrysis—who handled over half the album's production with mixed results—underlines just how essential that third member was to the group's sound. Another Khrysis beat, "Revenge," with its plaintive vocal and keyboard samples, is the album's best. Both MCs sound hungry like this is their debut and they still have everything to prove, with Phonte closing: "If opportunity don't knock at my door/then best believe I gotta kick down yours." On most of the album, though, the aura of finality seems inescapable, and so any sense of urgency is lost. Less than stellar stabs at romance like "Second Chances" and "Before the Night Is Over" do double duty as tongue-in-cheek failures to reignite the group's chemistry. One such track, "Table for Two," another Khrysis instrumental full of plodding Southern bass and crisp, squeaky synths to complement Yahzarah's pop chorus, makes good on the romantic double-entendre. Too bad the duo don't get it together more consistently on LeftBack
The latter track, with its funny framing skit about credit card debt, underlines one of the most refreshing sensibilities that runs throughout the Little Brother oeuvre and is sorely lacking in most of today's rap: consistently honest class politics. Meaning that where many young and rising rappers may talk about being broke, they'll also rap about absurd shopping sprees and ice—as Kanye West
put it: "I went to Jacob with $25 thou/before I had a house and I'd do it again"—subjects that only figure in LB lyrics in terms of absence and lack. As Phonte puts it on the outro to "After the Party," another ode to disappointment: "One deluxe pass on the jump-off express gets you/one meal at the 24-hour restaurant of your choice/followed by fifteen minutes of passion on my momma's futon/those with self-esteem need not apply." With most new school rappers boasting a mutation of gangsta rap's conspicuous consumerism, Little Brother's ironic, affecting financial realism is one of the many things hip-hop will be missing once the duo has left.