A Little Brother reunion seemed unlikely when, back in 2014, I wrote the op-ed, "Little Brother is Not Coming Back, Here's Why They Matter." At that time, the North Carolina hip-hop trio of Phonte, Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder was inactive as a group and had been for some time. Still, the desire for a comeback remained.
Similar to OutKast, Little Brother is more than a rap team—they’re a touchstone in our culture’s history.
Hip-hop culture is full of miracles. These moments and events in the world of rap transcend logic. In the recently released, Holland Gallagher-directed documentaries, The Listening: The Story Behind Little Brother's Debut Album and Homecoming: The Story Behind Little Brother's Surprise Reunion at The 2018 Art of Cool Festival, we bear witness to the miraculous circumstances that brought the group together in 1998, and the magical chain of events that reunited the three on one stage 20 years later.
All it takes is one miracle to make another. Almost a year after the group’s first performance together in over a decade, Phonte and Big Pooh announced Little Brother would be reuniting to release an album. 9th Wonder, the mastermind behind the group’s soulful production, isn’t currently involved, but the internet rejoiced all the same. Now, after much anticipation, the first Little Brother album in nine years is here.
Little Brother’s fifth studio album is titled May the Lord Watch. It’s safe to say, even if the Lord doesn’t, the rest of us will be. What do the two veteran emcees have left to show us? Let’s find out.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. “The Feels”
This feels good already. Oh man, the U.B.N skit just took me out. I wasn’t expecting them to make a callback to The Minstrel Show. Some gorgeous production. It’s shiny boom-bap. I’m in a bright basement where the dust smells like cinnamon. Phonte is starting the show. His flow is so sturdy, fluid, and effortless. If his flow had a body it would be built like a swift defensive lineman. Words were made for Phonte to rap them. “Flexing on an old bike I never forgot how to ride.” Phonte and Pooh don’t sound like they been separated for 10 years. They’re back like they never left. There’s an engaging passion in this intro. “The Feels,” says: This is a comeback, not a cash grab. I’m excited for more.
2. “A Word From the President”
A skit. Oh shit, Percy Miracles died. This is good. Word to The Minstrel Show. Yeah, Little Brother hive will have flashbacks. They doing it for the fans.
These keys are twinkling. Phonte is in the introspective bag. Lyrically, he sounds as sharp as he does on No News Is Good News. Combat Jack shoutout. I like the way Pooh slides in. “Another chapter for the memoir.” A woman vocalist. She sounds good. A nice soulful texture. Man, this is grown man rap; not just grown men rapping. Lyrically, these perspectives are refreshing. Phonte coming back on the tail end of Pooh’s verse shows the thoughtfulness for structure. Love the relapse bar. “A little peace is all we’re chasing.” Feels vintage, but it doesn’t sound dated. It’s fresh with life. A keeper. The skit about Kennan Thompson as Big Pooh pushed me out of my seat.
4. “Right on Time”
The bounce! Love the ongoing U.B.N skits. They aren’t taking up the whole tracks, but just enough. The album is moving at a nice pace. Pooh is running lead here. This performance is strong. He sounds inspired. It’s the return of New Music Tuesday. This is how you kick off the week. Tigallo is moving like Michael Vick wearing No. 7 for the Falcons. Marvel reference. “Peace of mind comes with a check attached.” Yes, he’s in a good writing space. Phonte’s perspective hits harder every year I get older. He's an emcee to age with. These guys are so thoughtful with the album construction.
5. “Black Magic (Make It Better)”
These aren’t 9th Wonder beats, but each song has the spirit of vintage Little Brother. Everything is in unison with their history. “Black Magic” is already shaping up to be a favorite. The ASCAP bar. These two are in a nice groove. They sound harmonious. Did they record this together in the same studio? Nice vocalist on the hook. “Cut from a different cloth, you know the finest fabrics.” These two are genuine about their blackness. Black and proud music feels good. Phonte is a flat-wing truther. Respect. Focus production. All praise to him. My favorite beat thus far.
6. “Life After Blackface”
“Life after Blackface” could be the title of a Drake documentary. Joe Scudda! I’m loving these skits. U.B.N is a genius concept being executed perfectly.
7. “Goodmorning Sunshine”
A spotless and gleaming instrumental. “Lil Wayne said I shouldn’t have no ceiling.” I’m in tears. Pooh is snapping. They have such a good pacing. Did they write these records together? There’s a strong sense of unity. As a group, the two haven’t missed a step. Synergy is hard to fake. Haha. Phonte's second verse could go on for an hour and I wouldn’t complain. He’s sliding with such ease. His flow is like watching a swan perform synchronized swimming. Pooh is back in. A soulful hook. Man, this album has so much soul. The DJ scratches. Phonte shares co-production credits on “Goodmorning Sunshine” with Focus. Hats off.
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8. “Dyana Change My Life”
Oh! Dramatic. Hahaha. Hahahahaha. Funny skits are undefeated. Little Brother came back to save rap skits.
9. “What I Came For”
I like this tempo. It’s a warm, bouncy joint. Pooh is running point. He’s pouring conviction and passion into every verse. These are the words of a lively rapper. “If you got it out the mud, you ain’t scared of the dirt,” is the kind of hook only Phonte would write. Oh yeah, if he keeps rapping like this, place a goat emoji in his Twitter bio. “Stay low and build with her like Fortnite.” Yep, he’s still on a different level. I’ll argue he’s getting better still. I’m so glad they decided to come back this way. Some nice DJ scratches. A lot of nostalgia in moments like this.
10. “Inside the Producer’s Studio”
?uestlove! This skit is a concept I support. Someone make a GoFundMe. Ro Lee back! “I’m back, baby.” Hahaha. Oh, this is gold. If Vince Staples has a show I need Little Brother in the writer's room.
11. “Sittin Alone”
Break out the barbecue sandals. This is a groove. Love how the sample is chopped. More grown man bars. “My new normal ain’t normal at all.” Interesting to hear Phonte talk about Instagram. He has an uncanny way of capturing how much his life has changed. Lyrically, the subject matter shows how they look at the world and their place as men and artists in it. The “Blackness” ad-lib! Oh, this story is classic. “After 35 the club is a different kind of torment.” Phonte captures his lifestyle at its most authentic.
12. “Picture This”
Black Milk gave them a crack rock fresh out the pot. This beat is warm enough to defrost a racist’s, cold heart. It sounds like sunny, picnic weather. Pooh is taking us back to his early days. Such a smooth flow. Love the vividness. “I had hopes, never thought I’ll sign a record deal.” I’m telling you, Little Brother is a hip-hop miracle. These guys defied so many odds. Phonte! Get lost in the storytelling. “Stepping out on your faith is a heavy path.” Oh! Man! That penicillin bar was super effective. “Picture This” is great writing from beginning to end. Another skit. These keys, man.
13. “Niggas Hollering”
They haven’t fumbled a single moment. Every skit has landed. A basketball debate. Hahahaha. “The man single-handedly beat the Lakers and racism at the same time.” Hahahahaha. Classic.
14. “All in a Day”
Two more records. I’m not ready for this album to end. It’s rather short, which, in 2019, is a good call. Some more soul. Pooh’s energy has been translating so well. He is on fire. I need Drake and Phonte to do one record before it’s all said and done. Do it for the bars. “I won’t stop rocking until I retire.” Hahaha. I love the spotty fire bar. I like the future of elder statesman. They don’t sound like present haters, just men who acknowledge things have changed. Great to hear Phonte say he’s only getting better.
15. “Work Through Me”
Grand finale. Phonte to begin. Not a single bad verse on the album. Dare I say, Phonte doesn’t have a bad verse in his discography? Pooh didn’t slack, though. These two didn’t come to play. This album is just so slick; such a pleasant surprise. The two going back-and-forth is glorious. Hahaha. The Uber Pool bar. That’s the one. That’s how you close out an album.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Little Brother's May the Lord Watch
May the Lord Watch is a 30 minute, 15-track exhibition of why hip-hop loves Little Brother. The charm of their wit, the brilliance of their lyricism, and their exquisite ear for production are well-polished trophies on display for the world to enjoy.
Although Phonte and Pooh revisit the U.B.N concept of The Minstrel Show, May the Lord Watch doesn’t suffer from enchantment with nostalgia. It’s as if the pair took old, forward-thinking ideas and placed them within a fitting present. There’s a self-awareness to the album. May the Lord Watch finds space in the now without becoming a victim of the times.
With May the Lord Watch, Little Brother proves as the years rolled on, we never forgot their timeless music. They still know how to make us reflect, laugh, and sway like no other. After all this time, their music is still medicine and candy; the punchline and the message; southern fried black soul served in the form of a reality check.
Little Brother came back—a miraculous reunion—producing a reward for fans who never forgot and a gift to the culture they could never leave behind. May the Lord Watch is the best kind of comeback album, one built on the back of legacy. The album plays like an epilogue to conclude one book, and the prologue introducing a brand new chapter. We're turning the pages together.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Miracles, aka @Yoh31