“May the Lord watch between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight” —Genesis 31:49
Midway through his sophomore album, No News Is Good News, Phonte sounds worried. At the beginning of “Expensive Genes,” memories of fallen Black luminaries—Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, hip-hop podcast pioneer Combat Jack, and even his late father—cloud the veteran emcee’s thoughts as he sits on an exam table.
The song’s title is a play on words. Phonte is comparing the various health issues millions of Black Americans are predisposed to with the cut of fancy pants (“Wish that I could fit in these expensive genes / I don’t like this cut, it’s like the Lord got my order wrong”). It’s a fitting metaphor, given the increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and sickle cell anemia—which Prodigy struggled with for his entire life—in the Black community. Many of us consider living past 60 to be a blessing.
Even at his most melancholy, Phonte can’t help but mix in a little sugar with the medicine. His reputation as a member of Little Brother, a group bold enough to release an album called The Minstrel Show, precedes him. As witty and relevant as its conceit is, the most pointed jab on “Expensive Genes” pokes out from its final bar:
“It ain’t nothin’ serene, it’s called Blackness / The most expensive gene of all” —Phonte, “Expensive Genes”
It’s no secret that society sees Blackness as little more than a commodity. Our culture is continuously stripped for parts and boosted at a markup. Black cis and trans people continue to be shot dead and their assailants walk free. For as much as he is reveling in the new spoils of married life on No News Is Good News, Phonte is trying to prepare his children for this constant state of mourning. Blackness necessitates finding the silver linings within the darkest confines.
The last bar on “Expensive Genes” has stayed with me since I first heard it, and it was the first thing that came to mind when I got word that Phonte and fellow North Carolinian Rapper Big Pooh would be reuniting as Little Brother to release their first album as a duo in nine years.
Fourteen years removed from the release of their seminal work The Minstrel Show, 12 years removed from the departure of producer 9th Wonder, and nine years removed from their last LP, Leftback, Phonte and Pooh use the newly-released May the Lord Watch to both prod at and celebrate all of the cultural lands Blackness is touching in 2019.
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The pair is nothing if not consumers of Black culture and in the nine years since they’ve been away, they haven’t lost a step. Almost immediately, their cinematic universe—first established on The Minstrel Show—comes back into the fold: the album opens with a shiny new slogan for their satirical TV network UBN. That’s the U Black Niggas network, for those uninitiated.
Infamous R&B parody Percy Miracles has passed away and white disc jockey Peter Rosenberg of Hot 97 fame is now president of UBN, hawking tickets to his memorial service for $69. If it weren’t for ticket scalpers trying to turn a profit by reselling tickets to the late Nipsey Hussle’s memorial service earlier this year, such humor wouldn’t feel as ridiculous. UBN’s fall lineup includes a Little Brother TV movie starring Wendell Pierce as Phonte and Keenan Thompson as Big Pooh; a special dedicated to white rapper Joe Scudda “recovering” from his bout with blackface, which ends with the earnest jingle “It feels good to be a white man again!”; and you can literally purchase Blackness™ “hot off the presses” to be express shipped through Fifth and Fashion Prime.
These skits exist as more than just heaps of fan service for OG Little Brother fans; they satirize circumstances that haven’t changed in the almost-decade-and-a-half since The Minstrel Show debuted. The moment it becomes burdensome, white artists shed their cultural skin. White owners of predominantly Black companies use partnerships with prominent icons to exploit and then deflect accusations of racism. And after all these years, Wendell Pierce continues to be an icon of Black cinema. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This ethos extends beyond the skits and into the lives of both rappers. “Black skin, Black faces, Black people make Black magic / So pay me every fuckin’ dime and add taxes,” Phonte exclaims on “Black Magic (Make It Better).” On “Everything,” Big Pooh details working as an Uber driver to make ends meet while sustaining a musical drive “that Jeff Gordon would be proud of.” Phonte questions God’s will while weathering personal storms. Both Phonte and Big Pooh—and by extension, Black people everywhere—have put too much blood, sweat, and tears into their lives to have their joy stolen from them.
Little Brother find resilience and joy in their Blackness throughout May the Lord Watch. Personal growth (“I was taught men ain’t really s‘posed to have no feelings / But Lil Wayne said I shouldn’t have no ceilings / I was raised on rap music, I’mma need some healing”) sits next to creature comforts, like Phonte’s snack of choice as mentioned in “Black Magic”: “I need my ginger ale and five lemon peppers / All flats, nigga.” The small miracles in life genuinely make the struggles worth it.
Add to that, an ad-lib of Phonte triumphantly shouting “Blackness!” which is used to bookend four different scenarios across the album: Phonte fixing his credit with Equifax on “Right On Time”; Phonte serenading his wife on “Goodmorning Sunshine” with a playlist of songs by R&B singer Tank; a story involving one of Phonte’s friends who, on “Sittin’ Alone,” is excited he no longer has to pay child support for his college-bound son; Big Pooh noting on “All In A Day” how Black people are used and then tossed away, only to be remembered in death. The message is blunt and clear: Blackness is struggle, exploitation, joy, song, cultural influence, and lemon pepper wet all at once.
May the Lord Watch stands as a testament to Black brotherhood. Their surprise reunion was facilitated by Big Pooh texting Phonte in the wake of the death of A Tribe Called Quest emcee Phife Dawg in 2017. “He ended up responding back. And he called me, and we ended up talking for about four hours,” Pooh remembers in their Homecoming documentary. Burying the hatchet set North Carolina’s golden boys on the path to self-redemption.
May the Lord Watch is about more than reviving one of the most well-balanced duos to have ever existed in rap music. It’s about two Black men remembering to watch over each other in the studio and the street; it’s about remembering that those expensive genes are yours, for better and for worse; it’s about realizing that life is too short to stew in those genes alone.