July 3, 2008

Little Brother - The Listening (February 25, 2003)

Little Brother, an "alternative" (whatever the fuck that means) hip hop collective made up of rappers Big Pooh and Phonte, and now-former-member 9th Wonder as their producer, have earned themselves the title of second most loved export from the state of North Carolina, right behind the Wright Brothers. Naah, I'm just messing with you: Petey Pablo ranks much higher than Little Brother.

Anyway, I'm not really sure how I first heard of Little Brother. I'm pretty sure that the original incarnation of HipHopSite.com was responsible, though. All I know is that the crew's debut album, The Listening, took the Interweb by storm, and while it barely sold enough copies to pay for the battery in the alarm clock that awoke the artists and alerted them to their studio arrival deadline, it made a lot of noise in Blogland, mainly due to its sound being the perfect antidote to the crap that was passing for hip hop in early 2003. Due to this quote-unquote "success", Big Pooh and Phonte, two rappers with obvious talent and some great fucking taste in hip hop, were able to create work for their friends, who dubbed the entire collective (including Little Brother) the Justus League, which is just begging for some DC Comics legal intervention, but whatever.

While not rapping, Phonte has become beloved as one of the better known celebrity bloggers (I distinctly recall reading a post of his that dissected the racist undertones in Mike Tyson's Punch Out!, a quick read that was both hilarious and offensive, which always works for me). Both Phonte and Big Pooh have kept themselves busy dropping cameos on various albums, thus creating an even bigger name for themselves in our chosen genre. After The Listening, producer 9th Wonder, who was originally considered to be the breakout star of the crew (I'm sure some folks still think that, now that I mention it) thanks to his mastery of beat making programs, was plucked from mainstream obscurity to provide a beat for Jay-Z's The Black Album (the standout "Threat"), an opportunity which he parlayed into a steady career providing beats for rappers in need (although one of those rappers was Memphis Bleek, but we won't hold that against him today). The Listening has hit classic status on the Isle of Blog, and these three gentlemen seem poised for fucking greatness, with an obvious love for old-school hip hop that has earned them legions of loyal fans.

So why the hell did I not like The Listening? (Shit, I gave it away again!)

Yet another rap album intro. Hooray! At least the radio station theme that is established here plays out throughout the entirety of The Listening, though, and consistency is always a plus in Max's book.

I am not privy to the whereabouts of Part One, but I've heard that it took a position as an apprentice of the janitorial arts at your local community college. The rhymes definitely distract you from the overly plain beat, although the hook, which decides to steal from Rob Base, had to have been avoidable.

"Microsoft n----s say 'Word' and 'Page Up'"? That's pretty goddamn hilarious. But the reference to Eric Roberts is so good, if I were wearing a hat, I would tip it. If I had a mustache, I would twirl it as well, but that's only because of my day job as an evil tycoon that wears a big top hat and ties women to railroad tracks while running away with canvas sacks that have dollar signs painted onto them.

The beat is pretty inconsequential here. (That's a running theme, by the way.) You'll like the lyrics, though, especially the homage to Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm", from a time when Mobb Deep were actually fighting to remain relevant, instead of giving up the ghost.

This song was pleasant enough, but all of these beats are starting to sound exactly the same. The Eric B and Rakim swipe at the end, while not original in the least, was still welcome.

A short interlude-type track featuring Percy Miracles, the smoothed-out ignorant R&B oaf alter-ego of Phonte. It's funny, but probably less so with each listen.

Sadly, not a tale about the history of the weapon-turned-children's toy, but a boring-ass song with some sleep-inducing production.

The vocal sample which was looped and layered into the instrumental makes me want to shake the shit out of 9th Wonder right before throwing him down a flight of stairs, it's that annoying. However, the rhymes are good, and the beat switch at the end is a nice change of pace. But still...

I love it when rappers are obviously fans of other rap songs. To me, it's kind of like when film directors insert homages to some of their favorite films into their own projects. This song is actually pretty decent, but I may just be saying that because of the sheer number of pop culture references per minute.

An homage to old-school hip hop that works for the most part, except when the beat switches up for the third verse. Pooh's rendition of Audio Two's "Top Billin'" was amusing, though.

I liked this song while it was playing, but damned if I can recall anything specific about it.


This song is actually pretty good, even though the hook sounds like it was written by a two year old who just learned the words "get" and "up". The beat is a departure for 9th Wonder, as it sounds a lot more engaging than what I've listened to so far, but honestly, that probably has more to do with co-producer Eccentric (who had worked with Phonte in the past, prior to Little Brother's formation) than anything 9th did. Maybe if he switched things up a bit more often, he would still be a part of a certain group right now.

The crew's insistence on repeating the hook in bizarre places, such as after the chorus would traditionally be over, competes with the overall greatness of this song, but it's still affecting nonetheless.


16. HOME
Essentially an R&B interlude, with a slow-rolling beat that has the added benefit of relaxing your mind and your bowels.

I actually liked this Phonte solo shot a lot. That's all I got.

So someone else also gets the overall point of my blog: you have to listen to an entire CD before you can formulate any sort of valid opinion. It sounds like 9th Wonder included the snippets of Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" simply because he wanted listeners to subconsciously connect a great song with this one. Don't get me wrong, this is actually a pretty good song, and a great way to end your album, but comparing it to the aforementioned classic is asking a bit much. Also, this song's a bit too long.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The Listening, a hip hop album created by actual hip hop fans, ends up being an overall underwhelming experience, although it is possible the non-stop groupie love that Little Brother have received in Blogslyvania may have created more hype than it is humanly possible to live up to. Big Pooh and Phonte are undoubtedly talented rappers, so they're not especially at fault here. No, they are consistently failed by the only-sometimes-interesting production work by 9th Wonder, who, surprisingly enough, turns out to be completely fucking overrated as a beatsmith (he really needs to switch his shit up). Thanks to The Listening, I can now understand both the blogger love and the backlash against 9th, and if you give this a spin, you'll agree with me. (I realize I'm supposed to say that Little Brother have brought good old fashioned hip hop back to the forefront, but I can't do it: these beats are pretty weak.)

BUY OR BURN? I would recommend a burn, specifically of the songs listed below and nothing else, less you fall asleep behind the wheel of your car or something. (Max and Hip Hop Isn't Dead are not responsible for any damages.) I inadvertently ended up buying what sounds like eighteen tracks of the same instrumental over and over again, and I don't need my two readers to do the same. If there were an acapella disc, I would recommend you track that down, though: Big Pooh and Phonte deserve a better vessel to get their points across.

BEST TRACKS: "The Listening"; "Nighttime Maneuvers"; "Away From Me"; "For You"



  1. Agree, the beats on this album are kind of weak in spots, but I think the problem is fixed on Minstrel Show, which has way better production

  2. AnonymousJuly 03, 2008

    i've always found 9th wonder to be consistently average...

    but i like this album a lot, phonte is awesome.

  3. AnonymousJuly 03, 2008

    oh and the remix to "whatever you say" has a much better beat, makes it one of my favorite LB songs...i'd recommend checking it out (i know i've linked to it on my own blog -- shameless plug)

  4. I pretty much agree with your assessment of this album, but since you mentioned Eccentric, I have to ask if you listened to the "joke" album that he and Phonte made a couple years before all the Little Brother stuff blew up. I forgot exactly what it was called, "Unheralded Symmetrics" or something else, with the initials U.S., but it's a concept album of sorts where Phonte & Eccentric play a hip-hop duo desperate to make it big...long story short, each song is pretty much a parody of other hip-hop artists or style, including a psychobabble bullshit Jedi Mind Trick/Kool Keith/RZA track, a DMX track, a Wu-Tang track, and even a track where Phonte impersonates Madlib & Quasimoto...pretty entertaining stuff, especially since the majority of the tracks are just Phonte freestyling (see: fuckin' around) in the booth.

  5. Phil Watts, Jr.July 03, 2008

    Oh well...it's not for everybody.

    I think this album is a pretty good effort, although I would love for 9th to cut loose a lot more (which he has in recent years).

    By the way, if you think that 9th's beat for "Yo-Yo" was sleep-inducing, DO NOT listen to the Nicolay remix. His version will make you fall into a COMA.

  6. Hearing Little Brother for the first time was very refreshing. Great review, Max.

  7. AnonymousJuly 03, 2008

    Thanks for the reviews! Because of your 2cents, I'm still lookin for that Mark Ronson Version album...

    I gotta a request too..Can you review CL Smooth's "American Me" Album? Thanks!

  8. AnonymousJuly 04, 2008

    Like Tha Alkaholiks said "Bullshit"

  9. This is real talk. I remember listening to this album off the groupie net love it was getting and thinking: wtf is this weak shit?

    The beats were fucking weak. Little Brother have always had weak beats. "The Minstrel Show" was actually a waste of my time.


  10. well me being from BullCity I feel that they are the best, 9th has his weak moments but to me is a vary good producer but the later producons are better, & Hip Hop needs a laidback smooth side

  11. this album is hot... stop talking shit

  12. Respect your opinion but this some classic shit whole thing ride