Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh are back as Little Brother.
That’s all you need to know. OK, that’s not quite true, as 9th Wonder isn’t involved. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter. “May the Lord Watch” captures a magical blend of their first two records: 2003’s “The Listening”, an undisputed classic; and 2005’s excellent follow-up “The Minstrel Show”. While 2007’s “Getback” was well-received, fans often overlook it because (*caveman voice*) IT. NOT. GOT. 9TH. Get the f’ out of here with that bulls***.
So who is on the boards? The Soul Council – which includes the likes of Khrysis, Black Milk, Focus and Nottz. These ain’t no slouches, let’s be honest. And in capable hands, “May the Lord Watch” ends up being one of the best Little Brother records because not only does it feel like their classic work, but both Phonte and Big Pooh are superior emcees in 2019 than they were a decade and a half ago.
As with any great Little Brother album, a concept ties everything together. “The Listening” had fictional radio station WJLR (Justus League Radio); “The Minstrel Show” had the satirical version of BET with UBN network (U Black N****s). With their 2019 return, “May the Lord Watch” revisits the UBN concept, highlighting just how little has changed in 14 years. Of course, the delivery is undertaken with tongue very much in cheek, but there is truth in even the most ridiculous of skits. Yes – skits! Once a staple of the CD era to bulk out tracklistings, the North Carolina outfit, much like Masta Ace, have always used skits to tie their songs together. The irony of “May the Lord Watch” not being available on CD is largely irrelevant, given vinyl sales have superseded compact discs, but these skits are some of the funniest in hip hop history.
The term “Real Hip Hop” may be played out, but the lack of soul and ‘blackness’ in mainstream hip hop is particularly evident lately (Rapsody aside). Blackness is a common theme throughout the album but it’s calculated rather than preached. Using white radio personality Peter Rosenberg for the role of UBN’s director is pitched perfectly, and topics such as the monetization of death (i.e. Nipsey Hussle) and white artists using “blackface” to sell records, are all covered with a unique sense of humor.
“Sittin’ Alone” sums up most of Twitter and social media in general. The fact that “social” media is largely populated with lonely individuals trying to engage over what’s on Netflix, and I’d include myself in that bracket, will hit home for many listeners. Phonte’s verse, in particular, is a Hip Hop Quotable for older rap fans and fathers:
“My mans hit me up and said
“Tonight, dawg, we celebratin’, my son is goin’ to college”
I said, “Congratulations”
He said, “Nah, you don’t get it, it’s two graduations
Him from high school and me from child-support payments” (Blackness)
So happy ’cause his check no longer gettin’ garnished
Then he texted me a flyer with these strippers on it
Wit’ eight different color type-faces written on it
I’m thinkin’ to myself, “Damn, yo, this is a warning”
We get down, thinkin’, “Damn yo, this shit is boring”
After 35, the club’s a different kinda torment
Pretend to be excited, watchin’ bitches Diddy Bop
When you would rather be at home watchin’ Flip or Flop
I took a flick and then I posted on my IG, yeah
It looked good but it was all lies like Fyre Fest
Before you hang with anybody 25 or less
Stay your ass at home and keep it low
That’s what I suggest”
It’s a cycle many of us can relate to. Wanting to be sociable for fear of missing out, when it’s largely an illusion enhanced by the likes of Instagram. This maturity and sense of self-worth are prevalent in songs like “Good Morning Sunshine” where Phonte admits there’s “No more nights gettin’ my drink on, just wanna get my think on, light the incense, put some Tank on”. Hip hop isn’t the young man’s (or woman’s) game it once was portrayed as, because it inevitably becomes a conveyor belt of 20-somethings that are replaced by new 20-somethings.
There are so many noteworthy lines on this album it almost puts other emcees to shame. Even Pooh’s stupid salmon/place/plaice line on “Right on Time”, whether intentional or not, is forgivable when offset by his “10-thou, 20-thou” approach to counting hours worked, as opposed to money made.
While this may sound like moany dad-rap, it’s far from it. Executed with a proud smile on their faces, tracks like “Black Magic” feel smooth and refined, like the glass of wine Big Pooh’s sipping in front of ESPN.
Nottz and Focus have worked with Big Pooh on previous projects so it’s no surprise to see them crafting gems. Khrysis held down the bulk of Little Brother’s previous two albums and he doesn’t disappoint here, but it was great to hear Black Milk return to his earlier style of chopped-soul on “Picture This”.
The fact that it was nine years since the last Little Brother album, this had no right to be as great as it is. Easily one of the best records released in 2019, superlatives only go so far. It may feel like “The Minstrel Show 2” in everything but name, but I’m glad they didn’t call it that because while the theme and execution are similar, “May the Lord Watch” is very much its own thing. The fact that it follows a style established nearly two decades ago, and it still sounds modern, only highlights how ahead of their time they were in the early 2000s. They established an influential style of “grown man rap” at a time when many older artists were struggling to adapt. Given the chemistry never dwindled, and the bars are better than they have ever been, “May the Lord Watch” only solidifies Little Brother’s place in the pantheon of great rap duos.