North Carolina hip-hop duo Little Brother have taken an interesting path toward releasing their new record, Getback: LB’s Phonte Coleman leaked the record himself last week. You can buy it October 23.
Discriminating hip-hop heads have been eagerly awaiting this release for quite some time, and despite all the anticipation, it doesn’t disappoint. Can’t see how this wouldn’t make my year-end list. Here’s the leadoff track…
Little Brother: “Sirens (feat. Carlitta Durand)” [from Getback, 2007]
Put simply, it’s another brilliant release from one of the most levelheaded hip-hop crews making music right now. Read on for a long, rambling tangent about what makes them such a refreshing oddity in contemporary hip-hop.
It’s not an earth-shattering revelation to say that hip-hop is battling an identity crisis right now as the allure of selling millions of records to every demographic in America grows every day. With that opportunity comes pressure: Record labels aren’t afraid to back new hip-hop artists anymore, but only if they see profit potential. Well, what’s selling? Sex and violence (no surprise there). Fine, talk about killing some snitches and fucking some bitches, we’ll throw a G-Unit cameo on there and wrap it up.
Without getting into all of the social and moral ramifications of exploiting economically disadvantaged youth, on a purely artistic level, that approach sucks balls. You get cookie-cutter garbage that treads no new ground and presents no unique voices, instead recycling concepts and images that have proven success in the key sales groups, rather than offering new viewpoints that make you think about life or look at the world around you differently — which is kind of the point of art, no?
When 50 Cent announced that his 2007 album, Curtis, was going to be more autobiographical and intimate, for a split-second I harbored fantasies of Fiddy getting real and explaining the ins and outs of his rise in the music business, and maybe even a little about what drives him, beyond the obvious. Instead we got more of the same, and hip-hop is worse off for it.
Of all the levels on which Dr. Dre’s 2001 is amazing, the most important is how much he reveals about himself. He leads off the album with a song about being jilted by the changing tide of hip-hop, and over the course of the record elaborates on those frustrations, extends the olive branch to Eazy-E, reaches out to D.O.C. — he’s basically maturing on wax. Dre sees what makes him an individual, and makes music about that. That’s art. Likening your cock to a roller coaster? Not so much.
Phonte and Big Pooh — the emcees who comprise Little Brother now that producer 9th Wonder left to pursue his solo work — get that distinction between pushing a product and creating musical art. They want hip-hop to matter, not just in terms of red and black, but in the ways that it can reach people and effect change in the world.
On their last album, The Minstrel Show, and in the interviews they did to promote it, LB put forth the idea that the being hip-hop gangsta was the new shuckin’ and jivin’ — that the suddenly ubiquitous face of hip-hop was nothing more than an extension of the exploitative and degrading minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th century. The new performers needed no blackface, and they might even be rich, but they were still being marginalized across the board.
Nowhere was Little Brother’s approach to hip-hop made more clear, however, than in an interview that Phonte did in 2005. They realize that they have a responsibility as artists, and they take it seriously, at least more so than say, the Ying Yang Twins:
We are in a position where we can own our own companies, make and distribute our own records. So what kind of legacy are we going to leave behind? It’s like, you don’t want your grandfather from the civil rights movement yelling at you like “I marched for civil rights so you could make the fucking ‘Whisper Song’? I got sprayed with hoses, chased by pit bulls, white folks calling me nigger everyday just so you can be a motherfucking P.I.M.P. and all this shit?”
And I mean, I’m a fan of both of those records, but when songs with that kind of subject matter make up 80 to 90 percent of the hip-hop you hear on the radio, there is a problem, you know?
Artists who take the social responsibility of their music as seriously as the artistic side of their work demand to be heard. Even those who tread the same thematic ground in creative ways (T.I. comes to mind) at least understand they’re artists. If you want the same old uninspired tales of shootings and blowjobs in the VIP room, Getback won’t satisfy. But if you want narratives about the realities of growing up in poverty, the importance of growth to art and life, or even an examination of the emptiness of one-night stands, well, here’s your new favorite record.
Also, the beats on here are fire. That always helps.