This isn’t exactly the easiest album to find. The only way this reviewer was able to get a copy was RapReviews mailbox. “Yo where’s that Little Brother review?” “Y’all gotta check that ‘Listening’ album by Little Brother.” “I’ve been waiting for that Little Brother review for weeks, where’s it at?”

With that much weight on it, there had to be something to the Little Brother phenomenon. And Little Brother is certainly keeping good company on indie hip-hop label ABB Records, known for bringing heavyweights of the underground like Dilated Peoples, Defari, and Joey Chavez to national acclaim and underground fame. The label has a reputation for being West coast pioneers though, which is why Little Brother’s origins in Durham, North Carolina may seem odd at first. Instead of trying to figure it out, chalk it up to “real recognizes real” and move on; it’s not worth dwelling on.

Instead, you should focus on “listening” to this full length debut album. Even though to many rap heads this album springs full born into the rap world straight out of nowhere, it’s clearly not a fluke or a mistake there wasn’t a big national single before this LP. One single would not define Little Brother. Like albums from The Roots, Organized Konfusion or Freestyle Felllowship, it’s a gestalt of the sum being greater than the parts. Sans one track, the entire LP is produced by 9th Wonder. A silly bio on their official website claims he was actually The Great Kabuki in NWA. Certainly his musical style could be kin to Kabuki’s heel antics, where the beats kick you in the head ’til you feel it. The fading and rising melody “Groupie Pt. 2” keeps it smooth while simultaneously putting his brethern in the spotlight. “Speed” certainly feels like; not because of a fast track but because of a repeating rim tap and echoing wails over a pulsing bass that builds the tension. “Whatever You Say” is appropriately lacadaisical, but “The Yo-Yo” doesn’t jerk you up and down. The yo’s in this case are uttered by the people trying to holler at Little Brother’s MC’s. Speaking of whom, 9th Wonder’s beats wouldn’t be as nice without Big Pooh and Phonte to spit verbals. The latter’s rhymes on this cut are straight hilarious, not in a bad way but in a “I’ma do me, fuck what you think” type fashion as he bashes cats who are just TOO pretentious for they own good:

“Y’all know them niggaz that I’m talkin bout
The ones that y’all be seeing at the coffee house
Soon as they get the mic I start walkin out
And swear that they skills the most talked about
It’s time to bring the MC’s on
I’m sick of niggaz lookin bitch tryin to read poems
They try to battle me with sandals and capris on? C’mon dawg
I’m about to get hyped with this, shed some light to this
So called black righteousness
Even though y’all niggaz might not cuss like me
End of the night, y’all just tryin to fuck like me
So what’s the reason for the hatin? Niggaz with dreads
callin they self Gods, with white girls named Caitlin
And I’m cool with interracial datin
But I ain’t bout to hear no fuckin speeches cause I wanna have some bacon
I rock and swerve, that’s why I can’t fuck with coffee houses man
Get on my God damn nerves
And deep down y’all know that I’m right
Man shit I’m bout to kick some Trick Daddy next poetry night
Like – my black queen… don’t know nann nigga!”

Sorry if the vegans out there are offended, but when he says “fuck that tofu, I need a pork chop on my plate” in the chorus, I’m saying WORD! Big Pooh is equally tight on “The Getup”:

“Shit’s fly when I kick lines
The most improved when I kick rhymes
Not in the prime but ahead of my time
Stayin sublime to the limelight
Y’all maggots haggerd and don’t rhyme right
From bein exposed to light
Nocturnal cause you chose this life
You fucked up cause you chose the pipe
Warnin to ducks that Pooh bout to go yard
I’m a couple past Bonds when I face your squad
First smith specialist, nobody get the best of us
Pooh and ‘Te tag team like we wrestlers”

Hmm; maybe they really are peeping that NWA-TNA on Wednesday nights. Still it’s hard to pin down just one verse, one beat, or one song on “The Listening” because the aptly named album describes what you’ll be doing from track one through track eighteen almost sixty-four minutes later. Each song is a revelation in itself, from the uptempo jazz and sung lyrics of “Make Me Hot” to the ode to hip-hop and even MP3 downloaders on “Love Joint Revisisted” – which even has a sly reference to the Macho Man, Randy Savage. Even if you’re not a mark for grappling though, you’ll certainly give it up for Pooh’s rhymes:

“It’s Big Pooh from the Lover’s State
I love Phillies and cheesesteaks
I love records when the beat breaks
I love school when the heat breaks
Fire hydrants makin street dates
I love 22, it feels great
Mike Tyson in his outtakes
Steppin out with the fly date”

It’s the natural interplay with Phonte that follows that will remind old school heads of EPMD or Run-D.M.C.:

“So fans get ready for the outbreak
Cause we gon’ do it with or without papes
Even if I rhyme until my mouth aches
For all the people that I bond with
Plan for big stakes, on some Angus Barn shit
And if you want this, get right
That’s why I love whack niggaz
– Thanks for makin my shit sound so tight!”

By the time this album brings you “Home” through some “Nightime Maneuvers,” you’ll have experienced “The Listening” on a level that nourishes every aspect of hip-hop in your soul. Some combinations are so good they are sublime, and 9th Wonder with Phonte and Big Pooh achieves that union. Even if they don’t take their competitors seriously or themselves too seriously, their music is seriously good. It comes from an inner sense of artistic bliss, the joy of expressing something that’s more than just poetry or moods. You might find this album lacks in “bling bling” or a definitive song that will get them on MTV, but that’s quite alright – it’s still one of the best things you’ll hear in 2003 regardless.

Little Brother :: The Listening