The Underrated: Little Brother's The Minstrel Show

By @TrueGodImmortal

1. Welcome To The Minstrel Show
2. Beautiful Morning 
3. The Becoming 
4. Not Enough 
5. Cheatin
6. Hiding Place 
7. Slow It Down 
8. Say It Again
9. 5th and Fashion (Skit)
10. Lovin It
11. Diary of A Mad Black Daddy (Skit)
12. All For You
13. Watch Me 
14. Sincerely Yours 
15. Still Lives Through 
16. Minstrel Show Closing Theme 
17. We Got Now 

There are some albums that change your life and you don't even realize it. In some ways, this is one of them. This is one of my all time favorite albums ever. I remember when I discovered the album. It was October 2005. The album had been released for about a month at the time and I was just becoming more and more tech savvy and internet aware. As I was getting slightly invested into a particular internet hip hop forum, I would always see people talk about a group that I had previously been a fan of when they dropped their debut in 2003. The North Carolina trio Little Brother had dropped The Listening, which was in short supply here in Maryland if you went looking for it. I had read an issue of XXL Magazine in 2003 and saw them listed for the album, along with their review in The Source and felt compelled to take a listen. I loved The Listening. I played it often in my CD Walkman during travels and commutes to school, and I was the only one at my school who even listened to Little Brother. I took that with pride, as I felt their music was what the game needed at the moment. A throwback to their obvious influence of A Tribe Called Quest, Phonte, Big Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder instantly made me a fan from the moment I heard the opening stanzas in "Speed". However, that was the first album. It would be their 2nd album that really captured my attention and if I can, I'll take you back to this fateful day in October 2005. I was in Virginia at the time, on a short trip with family, when I ventured into a Record and Tape Traders. I had been anxious to find the new Little Brother album that I kept hearing about, but wasn't sure if I could find it, since no one seemed to have it here. Not FYE, not my local Best Buy, no one.

As I walked into the Record and Tape Traders store (whether it was an actual Record and Tape Traders location I can't recall, but it was in the same vein virtually), I went to the hip hop section and looked in the L section. To my surprise, I saw the Little Brother name listed and looked through the multiple CDs they had available. I noticed The Listening, then I also took not of The Chiltin Circuit 1.5 mixtape, which I managed to snag myself a few months prior in a small mom and pop record and tape trader type store called CD Depot. That would be the same place I got The Listening, but for whatever reason, that same store didn't possess the second album from the group. I guess it was meant for me to find it in Virginia, just so I can have this story to tell. I remember looking beyond those two CDs and seeing two copies left of the newest Little Brother album The Minstrel Show. Instantly, I grabbed a copy, pulled out my crumpled up twenty dollar bill, and went to the counter. The album wasn't on sale like most newer releases, it was being sold for 17.99. I remember this vividly because I was used to buying new albums from 50 Cent, Jay-Z, T.I., Nas, and many others for no more than 11.99 or 12.99 at best.

Regardless, I paid for my album and headed back to the car. I opened up the CD and looked at the packaging and the tracklist. I was extremely excited at this point. I had no idea what to expect as I had not read any interviews or details about the album, and I avoided any reviews of the album until after I would listen to it. I figured I would love this album anyways, as I had every Little Brother released so far (only 2) and went through great lengths to find this one. I got back home and took a listen to the album, and upon the first sounds of the intro, I was already interested. The first words I heard were "you are watching U....B....N... U Black Niggas Network" and it was followed by a smooth 9th Wonder instrumental plays and the adlibs of Yahzarah, who comes in with the perfect way to start this off:

"We like to welcome you to everything there is to know/
This is our life, this is our music, it's our minstrel show/"  

As the credits seem to be rolling and welcoming us into this album, the now infamous host of Talking Dead and Nerdist enthusiast Chris Hardwick provides the narration for the intro as it closes out, another ironic placement, as it is obvious that Chris is a white man hosting on what is perceived as an all black network like UBN. There lies the beauty of Little Brother albums. There's usually a theme. The Listening had a radio theme, and The Minstrel Show seemed to have a television theme wrapped up within everything else that could make up the "minstrel show" in question. The satirical element of the album is sometimes overlooked because the music is so great, which leads me to the opening song "Beautiful Morning". The booming 9th Wonder production feels exactly like the start of a new day, and the hook drives that home in a simple manner with "even though the birds ain't singing and the sun ain't shining, it looks like a beautiful morning", before Phonte steals the show with his usual reality based lyricism and honest demeanor. Check his verse:

"Each day's another chance to do the things I could've/
Done the day before, but didn't and known I should've/
So I say a prayer for the gone for gooders/
Who left this world, then kiss my girl, good mornin', shuga/
Another sunrise, and as much as I would love/
To roll over on you I cannot do it because/
The good Lord I prayed to him/
And he said, niggas is listening now, so I better have something to say to 'em/
So I'mma tell 'em how it went down, man/
Doing shows for free going outta town, man/
The way I almost broke down and/ 
Got a 9 to 5, cause I had more press than the soundscans/
This is the price that I pay for this music/
And every word that I write is a testament to it/
And if I had to go back, I wouldn't change a thang/
Wouldn't re-cut it, re-edit, or change a frame/
Cause it would not be fair/
To turn my back on the struggle, when that exact same hustle got me here/
Told niggas from the getup/ 
We three the hard way, and Broadway's the only place you'll ever throw a set up/"

In hip hop, this is what we'd call a flawless victory. Yes, Big Pooh comes with some raw rhymes over the 9th production, but Phonte just seals the deal with one of his more simple yet most quoted verses. Keeping in line with the momentum that was apparently built up from Phonte and his closing verse on "Beautiful Morning", we then go into a solo track from Phonte, one that isn't my favorite on the album due to the slightly bland production from 9th, but Phonte delivers as usual lyrically. I think if I had one small complaint about the album, it would be that this song was probably placed a little too early. Perhaps this would have been better suited back to back with Pooh's solo track, but that's merely a sequencing issue and has no bearing on the track's quality.  Moving on from this minor miscue, the pace picks up even more with one of my favorite songs on the entire album, "Not Enough" featuring the Justus League secret weapon Darien Brockington.

Now, when I listen back to this song, it's something about the production along with the hook that lifts it even higher than before. The song represents that starving artist mentality along with the desperation that comes with not being where you want to be in life. Both Pooh and Phonte bring true to life rhymes, but I have to credit the back and forth rhyming style between the two for elevating the sound. The contrast in the voices and cadences makes the song pop and the despondent yet catchy hook from Darien keeps this song on repeat. When I first got this album, this was the song I would play over and over again. If you're going through your own personal struggle, this song seems to be a perfect fit for your therapy. In a hilarious twist, right after this, they go into a parody song by Phonte aka Percy Miracles on "Cheatin", which is a satirical take on the tired genre of R&B where they make the same songs over and over. Phonte takes a small shot at the R. Kelly and Mr. Biggs saga, as "Cheatin" is basically rooted in the Isley and Kelly dynamic, but the comical lyrics are over exaggerated just so you know this is mostly a joke. Here's the only problem with this: the song actually works. It's catchy, the production and the vocals are actually decent, and I can't help but sing along to it. That's the beauty of it. As terrible as it is meant to be, it is also a decent listen, but it admittedly serves as a UBN infomercial or even a music video if you want to keep it within the theme. The legend of Percy Miracles was truly solidified here.

As if "Cheatin" didn't just happen, Phonte, Pooh, and Elzhi combine for one of the dopest tracks on the album, the lyrically charged "Hiding Place". While Pooh honestly gets left in the dust lyrically by Phonte and Elzhi, he still comes with a solid verse to kick off the song. However, Elzhi might have to take the cake on this one, as his verse is one of my favorites on the entire album. Check it out here:

Part 1
"Don't compare me to jokes/
I'll strangle the air in your throat/
Like you jump from a chair and choke/
In mid-air from a rope/
Got a big gun and carry a scope/
The flair of the smoke/
Keep niggas quiet like words that librarians spoke/
I'm arrogant, outlandish/
Blow your face out, and shake out the dandruff/
The jakes wont make out the handprints/
I'm as real as it gets/
With the steel and the clips/
Bark and make niggas duck, and kneel and do splits/"

Part 2
"Work and plan a perfect verse/
Then burst like a person/
That jerked from a circus cannon, then landed to earth/
It's me on the song/ 
Featured your fleet, breathing is strong/
It's a gypsy reading a palm/
With a drawn heater/
Never gone off the wrong reefer/
A bong chief of/ 
The don, ball as long as Lebron's bronze sneakers/
Got ways of a thuggie/
Thinking I wont come and get you, dressed like a bum with pistols, and AK's in a buggy/"

Not to be completely overshadowed, Phonte ends the back and forth verse between he and Elzhi with some amazing bars as well. Check it out:

"And Tay is blazing it lovely, cause I'm bored with the game/
So I sat back, chilled, dropped Foreign Exchange/
And a lot of rap niggas got lost/
Heard Phontigga carrying tunes and assumed he done got soft/
They didn't understand it was my next direction/
So I'm playing postman and addressing questions/ 
Like, yes I'm still in LB, no I'm not leaving/
No I don't eat meat, but yes I'm still beefing/
With all these wack niggas putting records out/
This is all live nigga, check it out/
LB, S Villa fam on a mission/
And I ain't worried about people biting Minstrel Show, they still teething on The Listening/"

After killing the competition on this track, LB comes down for a moment and talks directly to the ladies on the Darien Brockington assisted gem "Slow It Down". Yet again, the reality lyricism shines brightly here, and Pooh kicks off the song with one of his better verses on the album. Speaking directly to the women in his life and the ones he may encounter in the future, he lays it out there as honestly as possible.

"I'm trying to man up, see what's really good with you/
Gentleman's approach, not bring it hood to you/
Same things that you hear everyday/ 
Hey ma, hey boo, baby what's your name/
Please pull up a seat, I'm so glad you came/
My mother call me Thomas, you can do the same/
Damn its so refreshing when you calling out my name/
Been Pooh for so long it doesn't sound the same/
My occupation rap and I make a little change/
I see you not impressed with what this life brings/
Finished school, got a job, girl do your thing/
It's a lot of independent women wanna be claimed/
Marry into money or marry into fame/
Or at least give birth to a check/
With all due respect/
Let's two-step in the name of like/
Who says we gotta do the waltz all day and all night/"

As Darien drives home the point with the hook, we are led into half of a verse from Pooh then it jumps right into a nice follow up from Phonte. However, the verse that might he forever in the history books for hip hop would be the raw verse from Phonte to end the song, as it really sums up the feelings of a majority of men in the world, in the most honest and straightforward way possible. It's as if we're listening in to a conversation between Phonte and his inner self, as he spills his soul here:

"Sometimes I think I'm from another world/ (preach)
When I'm trynna tell a woman just exactly where I stand that/ 
I want a girl, when I want a girl/
And when I don't want a girl, I want a girl who understands that/
And that's some hard shit to explain/
To a woman that's in love with you, it's a pitiful thing/
Until I had to figure/
That I don't wanna play around, but I don't wanna settle down
And that's a man's dilemma/ Cause every man remembers/
How his daddy and his uncles did it/
'Cause more than likely, that's the way they're gonna do it/
I know it sound fucked up and most won't admit it/
But yo, I gotta face it 'cause I know I'm living through it/
'Cause when the party stops and niggas get old/
And the chain and the cars and the houses get sold/ 
And that other side of the bed gets cold/ 
You don't wanna be alone, so girl I'm tryna hold/ YOU"

The way he structured that verse is truly one of the best on this album and it's a top 10 Phonte verse IMO. The precision, the insight, the maturity to commit this to wax is perfection and if anything, Phonte just spoke for a large number of other brothers in the world who may have faced or are still facing that same dilemma he spoke of. One thing that I've always loved about Little Brother is their ability to truly create content in music that connects with the listener on a deeper level. Whether it be a song like "Beautiful Morning", "Not Enough", or even something from a prior release like "Nobody Like Me" or "Speed", the ability to tap into the everyday sensibilities of the listener is what makes LB one of my favorite hip hop groups ever. They continue the vibe on this album with the really solid "Say It Again", which compared to some of the heavier fare on this album, is very mild in content and almost just a fun departure for Pooh and Phonte to boast and talk some shit over a booming 9th production.

The album goes right back into satire mode however, as the hilarious "5th and Fashion" skit follows and how can you not laugh at the way they say "at 5th and Fashion... better call your... NIGGAS" while backed by a cheap commercial beat? It's brilliant satire at its best, and it leads right into the lead single and honestly the song that caused so much controversy for the group in general, "Lovin It". Now, "Lovin It" is your usual Little Brother music, but less thought provoking on the surface. With a catchy hook, really infectious sample backed by those amazing 9th drums, Phonte and Pooh kick some verses alongside Joe Scudda, but what really makes this song so vital is the fact that radio and video outlets refused to play it. Apparently BET called the song too intelligent to play and refused to do so. This sparked a controversy, and it's crazy to think about in actuality that a network would not play a song or video because it was too intelligent for their audience. Speaks volumes about that network. After this track, we have another interesting skit on "Diary of A Mad Black Daddy", before it leads into the deepest song on the entire album right after.

"All For You" is such a heartfelt song that you can't help but get a bit emotional if you relate to the song. Even if you don't relate, there's a hidden pain behind each of their words and it makes you really feel for the artists as they speak about their fathers who were absent and how they  responded to it. Pooh talked a little aggressively to his father in the verse, seemingly frustrated at the lack of relationship between the two, while Phonte speaks to his father, but somehow sympathizes in a way with the plight of his pops. He exudes a depth and level of understanding that is rarely understood in hip hop, or rather in general as well. What Phonte did with this verse was paint a picture of how he couldn't judge his father because he could very well end up the same, as evidenced by his recent experiences. Take a look at the verse from Phonte:

"I was looking at your photograph, amazed how I favored you/
I remember being young wanting to play with you/
Cause you was a wild and crazy dude/
And now I understand why my momma couldn't never stay with you/
From the roots to the branches to the leaves/
They say apples don't fall far from the trees/
I used to find it hard to believe/
And I swore that I would/
Always hold my family as long as I could/
But damn, our memories can be so misleading/
It's misery, I hate to see history repeating/
Thought you were the bad guy, but I guess that's why, me and my girl split, and my son is leaving/
I did chores, did bills, and did dirt/
But I swear to God, I tried to make that shit work/
'Til I came off tour to an empty house/
With all the dressers and the cabinets emptied out/
I think I must've went insane/
Thinking I was in love, but really in chains/
Trapped by this girl through the two-year old who carried my name/
I tried to stop tripping/
But yo, I couldn't and the plot thickened/
That shit affected me, largely/
Because I know a lot of people want me/
To fail as a father, and the thought of that haunts me/
Especially when I check my rear-view mirror, and don't see him in his car seat/
So the next time it's late at night/
And I'm laid up with the woman I'ma make my wife/
Talking 'bout how we 'gon make a life/
I'm thinking about child support, alimony, visitation rights/
Cause that's the only outcome if you can't make it right/
Pissed off with your children feeling the same pain/
So, Pop, how could I blame/ Cause you couldn't maintain/
I did the same thing... The same thing/" 

That whole verse hits hard and really is relatable to so many of us who have children and grew up with no father figure present. I consider this one of the greatest Phonte verses ever, as his ability to truly convey his emotions in such a strong and mature manner is one of my favorite elements of him as an artist. The last couple of lines in the verse shows a bit of growth and realization that you can't always judge a situation without also being put in the same predicament. The understanding and clarity in this verse makes it so much better and the picture he painted is truly vivid. This song is a top tier highlight on the album.

Next up, we have the first official track on the album NOT produced by 9th Wonder (minus "Cheatin" and "5th and Fashion Skit") on the banging Khrysis produced "Watch Me". Both MCs come with solid verses, and I think this is a perfect departure from the emotional heaviness of the previous track. Little Brother could coast over any production and the beautiful sample complemented by those knocking drums gives them the perfect canvas to paint on. Big Pooh has always been looked at as the lesser member of the group, and he takes time to address that and all those detractors on his solo track "Sincerely Yours". The sample from 9th is beautiful and the track overall is amazing, as we see more depth from Pooh in this track than we did on almost the whole album. He seemed particularly set on proving people wrong, a motivation that is familiar to most of us. Check some of his best lines as the song kicks off:

"I walk, with the swag of a letterman/
No amateur here, I'm a veteran/
You couldn't find many more who is better than/
Big Pooh when he rocking the mic/
No games, no hype/
Just mind and skills/
Pure determination and a heart full of will/
My nigga Tiggalo held me down for real/
But it's time now for me to ante up on the bills/
'Cause at the point when we signed our deal/
I was three years young/
Now I'm five plus some/
Write, to the beat of 9th's wonderful drum/"

It was as if Pooh had enough of the critics and acknowledged his possible shortcomings while pushing himself to get even better. That's beyond admirable to display in such a genre where you have to be the best. Pooh uplifts his own talent while saying he needs to step it up. That self awareness is key, and needless to say, Pooh did step it up and was a much more focused MC on this album than he was on The Listening.

As the album nears the end, we have the Tribe inspired "Still Lives Through", and it was as if Pooh felt reinvigorated by his solo track because he actually steals the show on this one. Phonte has a solid verse as well, but Pooh just sounds hungrier on this track and his verse is probably his best overall on the entire album. Following this track, we have the closing theme or more so the outro as the credits roll, then you have the final song, "We Got Now", which features Justus League member Chaundon. Both Pooh and Chaundon come with solid verses here, but it's Phonte who leaves the lasting impression on the listener with one of his best verses on the album. This might be a top 3 verse from Phonte on the album. Check it out:

"I tried to work with niggas, don't wanna jerk them niggas, but everybody runnin' around thinkin' they murderers/
Gave birth to niggas and when I burp them niggas, they spit up old lines that I fed to them earlier/
And this is what the state of hip-hop is like/
I'm thinking, Damn, this cannot be right/
And I agree that everybody's a biter, but if you Xerox the style, then that's infringing on my copy, right?/
It's the bottom of the 9th with no extra innings/
And we all in the game tryin' to collect our pennants/
And from the old school, I'm a direct descendant/
And y'all can feel it at the end of each and every sentence/
'Cause underground rap is just incense and gimmicks/
An image, they phone in for ten cents a minute/
I knew that since I entered, the rap game, my style/
Would have niggas takin' it back but what about now?/
I think about the youth and how their minds are so closed/
'Cause now Rap City look like Video Soul/
And that's a sad state of affairs/ But no need to despair/
Cause we the next ones that's takin' it there/"

The way Phonte spits this verse, it seems like a true sign of the times, but the sad part is you can apply it to today's hip hop industry as well. That's the mark of a classic in my opinion, when your music reigns as timeless. This song, this verse in particular, and this entire album is timeless and still a joy to listen to on the regular. I hold The Minstrel Show as one of my top 10 favorite hip hop albums of all time, and I explained why within this reflective look back. It's as flawless as you can get from a hip hop perspective, and nearly the perfect album. Pooh and Phonte set out to create something special and that's exactly what they did. Though the album caused and stirred up some controversy, only to sell very low (blame Atlantic for lack of promotion), they excelled where it matters most, and that's the music. There are rumors buzzing about a Little Brother reunion and possible album, and regardless of it happens or not, they will forever be etched into hip hop history because of this album. Point blank period.



Popular Posts