After turning the scene upside down with their out of nowhere debut, The Listening, LB has taken hip-hop by storm over the past couple of years. 9th Wonder became the “go to guy” for production, Phonte floored fans everywhere with his collaboration with Nicolay on the Foreign Exchange album and Rapper Big Pooh shut down naysayers with his remarkable Sleepers album – not to mention a ton of side projects being churned out at a rapidly acceptable rate. As the group’s hype reached F-5 status, the “natural disaster” began to unearth everything that’s wrong with hip-hop. From political agendas that force people to resign to faulty rating systems all the way down to being “too intelligent” for the average listener, Little Brother has become almost revolutionary without trying to come off as preachy. With that, comes their major label debut with a title that speaks in volumes about the industry. The Minstrel Show is Little Brother’s first major label shot at making a name for themselves and the question is “Can they live up to the hype?”
The Minstrel Show is laid out as a concept album that parodies itself in comparison to the hip-hop industry today. Instead of the WJLR radio theme that The Listening utilized, The Minstrel Show takes place at UBN (U Black Niggas) TV Station and takes you on a journey with a theme asserting that hip-hop is a modern day minstrel show with the players constantly playing themselves by showing only one side of hip hop culture (the bling bling, oversexed, thuggery). Can the three stars of UBN do enough to prove that their hype is well deserved? Let’s analyze them….
Some people have begun to grumble about the production of 9th Wonder (“He uses the same drum kit” “His beats sound the same”) and wondered if The Minstrel Show would be a step up for the producer wunderkind. Before getting into the strength of 9th Wonder’s production, let’s address the “his beats sound the same” theory. Every producer has packaged themselves with a certain “sound”, if not for that sound then that producer wouldn’t be THAT producer. When one goes to purchase an album with Premier’s production, one expects that nasty chop that Primo made famous. The listener expects the soulful stylings of Kanye West. And by copping The Minstrel Show, we expect the brilliant production of 9th Wonder. Without that “sound”, 9th Wonder wouldn’t be 9th Wonder. With that being said, The Minstrel Show features some really magnificent and polished production courtesy of Mr. Douthit. If there is anything truly noticeable off the bat, it is the fact one can tell that 9th has gotten his ass in a real studio and utilized it to its greatest ability. “Beautiful Morning” showcases the sheer brilliance of 9th behind the boards with moving strings and snapping snares. “Not Enough” displays 9th’s knack to make a sample of somebody breathing sound dope, while “Slow it Down” is downright excellent with a silky smooth David Ruffin sample. If Kanye is the “new version of Pete Rock” it is a pretty fair assessment that 9th Wonder is the “new version of Primo.”
People have questioned the ability of Rapper Big Pooh and if he really belongs alongside the ever evolving talents of Phonte. Instead of Pooh breaking under the pressure, the emcee opts to step his rap game up. On “Not Enough” Pooh laments “Or all love, its all bugged/tryin’ to mask them emotions with pounds and hugs/No more I say gotta make’em pay/Cause I’m tired of getting stepsonned in the worst way just wait/Them chips on my shoulder getting stacked/when my pockets catch up Pooh’s never turning back” addressing the fact that whatever he does is apparently never enough to satisfy the fans of LB. He even turns the criticism on himself with “Sincerely Yours” as the skit preceding it features two men speaking on “I think he’s just Tay’s cousin anyways” before Pooh tears into a solo joint that stands on its own and proves that he isn’t “just Tay’s cousin” who skated in without any talent.
Phonte’s growth as an artist and his ability to display his personality throughout the album really radiates within the UBN programming. Whether poking fun at today’s stale R&B hits as Percy Miracles on the downright side-splitting “Cheatin” or trading venom with Elzhi on the freakishly ill “Hiding Place”, a true artist’s matriculation can be witnessed. Tay gets clever with the one liners (“Radio better play this/cause Tay’s style is nuts and y’alls is just dated” on “Not Enough”), immodest (“I went from niggas tellin’ me that I really shouldn’t rhyme/To dropping classic albums muhfuckas couldn’t find” on “The Becoming”) and shows a side of an emcee hardly ever seen on the absolutely engaging father/son narrative “All For You”, in what is a truly cinematic performance by an artist who the modern man can relate to.
The Minstrel Show is an album seamlessly woven together with an intricate concept and skits that bring back memories of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. With today’s relevance to the album’s theme and sheer laugh out loud moments, one has to speculate if this album is a classic. From a critic who has yet to give a @@@@@ rating to this day, this album comes pretty damn close. Classics can only be donned with time, not a listening session that gives you a couple of hours to digest what took months to create. It is at that moment, months and months later, when you pop that CD in and go “man this is STILL dope.” Nonetheless, with The Minstrel Show’s impeccable timing in an era where hip hop is slowly falling into a disco-esque abyss, and the fact that they literally have no alliances in an industry, that damn near requires you to be in bed with an A-List rapper/label head/producer just to get your foot in the door, Little Brother accomplishes what many albums have and will continue to yearn for: thorough satisfaction. And just when the album closes and UBN is cut off the air as Phonte readies himself to launch into a vicious observation of the station, you have to wonder if this album, along with stellar releases from Common and Kanye West, is what corporate music establishments (BET, The Source to name a few) everywhere fear will change the direction of hip-hop. No matter what ratings you have seen given to this album and the hype surrounding it, if you are reading this do yourself a favor- digest the words in this review and forget about the ass backwards rating system. Then if this writer’s words have helped move you, go cop the CD and decide for yourself what you value as a “classic” album.
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