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Little Brother - The Listening Music Album Reviews

Little Brother - The Listening Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the 2003 debut by the North Carolina rap trio, a ridiculously hard throwback album that plugged hip-hop’s golden era into the internet age.

Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder have always been ’90s rap babies at heart. The two rappers and producer, respectively, grew up idolizing rap acts from the genre’s Golden Age: A Tribe Called Quest and their Native Tongues cohorts, EPMD, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and Hieroglyphics. “We considered them our big brothers,” Phonte told the Star-News during press for The Listening in 2004. “So we were like their little brothers,” Pooh replied. This was the philosophy the trio brought with them to North Carolina Central University in Durham in 1998.

Phonte and 9th Wonder were both born and raised in small North Carolina towns; Pooh grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and was drawn to North Carolina by a deacon at his church who suggested he attend NC-Central because it was an HBCU. Phonte and 9th first met while moving into their dorm rooms: 9th was carrying a copy of The Source. “At that time, if you saw somebody with a Source mag, it was like a Jedi meeting another Jedi,” Phonte explained in 2019. Pooh came into the fold when he and Phonte met during freestyle sessions in the room of their RA, Joe Drama. That room would become an incubator for the collective known as the Justus League: eight rappers (Phonte, Pooh, Chaundon, Cesar Comanche, Median, L.E.G.A.C.Y., Edgar Allen Floe, and Sean Boog), five producers (9th, Big Dho, Khrysis, Eccentric, and Son of Yorel), a DJ (DJ Flash), and a “Minister of Opinion” (Mike Burvick). They would crack jokes and kick rhymes and indulge in each other’s wide-ranging musical tastes, from the Roots to Led Zeppelin. Bonds formed as Joe Drama’s room became the Dagobah to over a dozen Jedi-in-training.

Their arrangement was casual, little more than friends having fun recording music, until a fateful night in 2001. Phonte and Median were scheduled to rap over a 9th beat called “Speed” but, at the last minute, Median didn’t show up. Pooh was there, though, so he and Phonte joined forces instead to create what would become the first Little Brother song. 9th’s beat is steady and soulful, perfect for uneasy morning commutes across the Raleigh Beltline. Phonte’s writing is vivid and impressionistic, conjuring his position as a slave to a dead-end job (“I’m sharecropping in this paper chase”) that keeps him from seeing his infant son for days at a time. Pooh counters with bars that bluntly lay out where his mind is at during trips through the arteries of North Carolina highways: “I let my life shine in between these paper’s lines/I write rhymes to incite minds/Spending time on this pipeline, 85 North.” They offer two different perspectives on this pink-slip paranoia or, as Phonte puts it, “I was the chisel, Pooh was the sledgehammer.” “Speed” highlights the relatable yin and yang of Phonte and Pooh—direct descendants of Tribe’s Q-Tip and Phife Dawg or EPMD’s Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith—over 9th’s expert manipulation of Bobby Womack and Mobb Deep samples. In an effort to bring the Triangle of North Carolina to the world, Little Brother was officially born.


The Justus League were geeked about their sound, which honored the East Coast-bred boom-bap of hip-hop’s past, but mainstream rap, particularly in the South, had begun to move on. The highest-charting Southern rappers between 2001 and 2003—artists like Nelly and Ludacris—favored booming bass and synth-based rhythms over samples and drum breaks. Crunk music was on the verge of going mainstream: Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz released their landmark song “Get Low” as a single on February 19, 2003, only six days before The Listening landed in stores. Within three years, the rise of snap music in the Bankhead area of West Atlanta would set the stage for the ringtone rap explosion led by artists like Soulja Boy and Dem Franchize Boyz in the mid-2000s. The South had produced plenty of lyrically minded emcees (Geto Boys, UGK, 8Ball & MJG) but barring notable exceptions like OutKast’s behemoth of a double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below released that September, the emphasis is on dances and beats over rhymes. Little Brother was moving in the exact opposite direction, hoping to create music with the thoughtfulness and soul of rappers like Scarface and Aquemini-era OutKast. Waning interest in this brand of rap didn’t deter Little Brother or the Justus League from putting their own twist on André 3000’s declaration that the South had something to say.

But outside of occasional spins on college radio, Little Brother’s reach was minimal. They put together The Listening on the cheap with $2,000, a computer, and some dinky microphones, equipment “you could have found in the back storage room of any middle school or YMCA,” friend and collaborator Joe Scudda tweeted in 2021. As college students working out of dorm rooms and off-campus apartments, they didn’t have anyone to pull strings in the music industry, but they managed to cultivate an early audience through local shows and burgeoning hip-hop message board communities like Okayplayer.

Founded by Questlove of the Roots on the same day the band released their fourth studio album Things Fall Apart in 1999, Okayplayer would position itself as a space for fans to interact directly with artists years before Myspace, Facebook, or Twitter existed. The site’s message boards were a battlefield of recommendations, jokes, and heated exchanges between artists and a small army of rap purists hungry for something outside the realm of Air Force 1s and oversized white tees. Four early Little Brother songs were posted to the website thejawn.com and then reposted to Okayplayer. Once those songs surfaced on the boards, Little Brother quickly found an audience who reaffirmed their confidence and made them into one of the earliest examples of blog rap stars.

The Listening’s 18 songs are tied together by a fictional FM station called WJLR Justus League Radio—“the future of hip-hop music”—that plays from the morning commute through the graveyard shift. Different League members make cameos as hosts, hotline callers, and themselves, creating a Real Hip-Hop utopia where the lyrics hit as hard as the beats. The radio station concept was already tried and true by the early 2000s thanks to the likes of De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, and Wu-Tang Clan, and WJLR served the same basic function of transplanting rappers into their own version of ubiquitous broadcasts. But Little Brother’s love for the past dovetailed with their desire to change the present. They called the album The Listening in direct response to audiences’ shrinking attention spans and perceived lack of appreciation for the finer details of a full-length LP: reading the album credits, memorizing songs, generally marinating in the art. The concept prods at the music industry with the same backhanded humor as the WRMS station from 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead: music nerds airing our grievances through characters and conviction.

The title track, which closes out the project, is the most explicit call-out. The first two verses trade stories of kids only caring about beats blasting out of cars and school days spent listening to Black Star and Big Daddy Kane albums. To drive home the point that “niggas ain’t listening,” the third verse is filled with nonsense bars about “Fly Motorola diploma style ice niggas,” “Gold Bond Armor-All fatigues,” and Jetsons references designed to rattle anyone only half paying attention. The whole thing is soundtracked by 9th’s breezy beat, which is punctuated by a blatant sample of the horns from “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” the Pete Rock & CL Smooth standard that sampled them from “Today” by Tom Scott and the California Dreamers. Tongues are darting through cheeks so hard, they’re practically bursting from their ears and touching the pop filters on the mic.

It’s bold and more than a little pretentious to cast yourself as classicist saviors of an entire genre on your debut album, but Little Brother’s understanding of modern radio and their sense of humor cuts the bitterness back to playful snark. For all the self-righteousness, Little Brother’s priorities were simple: hard beats and dope rhymes took precedence over everything else. 9th’s—who produced every song on The Listening except for “The Get-Up,” which was made by Eccentric—production style was nostalgic but forward-thinking, laying pounding drums over sample fragments with enough finesse and energy to not feel sterile. Early highlights “For You” and “Whatever You Say” use vocal chops and drums in tandem to create a new swing for Phonte and Pooh to skip across. The duo recorded “For You” as a literal mic check, but the sheer joy of hearing Phonte and Pooh try to outrap each other with poetic grace (“Microsoft niggas say Word and page up”) and blunt scene-setting (“We fire off like it’s New Year’s Eve”) is infectious. The trio’s love for the genre and its history is palpable—the hook for “Groupie Pt. 2” interpolates lines from Rob Base’s classic “It Takes Two” and “So Fabulous” is a rap nerd checklist for the ages—but the quality of the songs amplifies their passion more often than the references spell it out.

It also helps that The Listening is more than just a sermon for Backpackers Anonymous. Little Brother was content to stand in opposition to the more materialistic music dominating the airwaves, particularly in the South, but they weren’t opposed to the music and culture itself. They were smart enough to realize their own place as everymen within rap’s framework and play to those strengths as often as they embraced their Real Hip-Hop ethos. “Everybody can relate to a Little Brother song. Whether you crunk all day, or you a thug all day, or if you go plant flowers all day,” Pooh once said during a radio interview. The two verses on “Whatever You Say” juxtapose the duo’s failed attempts at picking up dates—Phonte manages to impress a love interest even though his verse didn’t rhyme. On “Away From Me,” a late album highlight, Pooh and Phonte pen thoughtful verses to family members, Pooh to his estranged older brother (“I bailed out in your time of need/But you fucked me over in your time of greed”) and Phonte to his young son (“Hearing your laugh is like music to my ears but the song ended”). The stately beats on both songs magnify the uncomfortable aspects of each story, but Phonte and Pooh’s sincerity and interplay balance everything out.

For all their emotional maturity and old-school hip-hop values, Little Brother leave plenty of reminders that this project was created by an idealistic group of music nerds. Only a fanlike appreciation for the inner workings of a studio session could produce a song as pointed and funny as “Make Me Hot,” where Phonte plays a talentless rapper harassing 9th for beats. Phonte’s verse on “The Yo-Yo” is all fire and brimstone over coffeehouse rappers in “sandals and capris” holding their Blackness over his head while only dating white women. Nearly a third of The Listening’s tracklist is made up of songs about the duo’s imperfect attempts at courting, sleeping with, and reconnecting with women. Their penchant for speaking their truths kept them down to Earth, giving the disses to corny rappers on “Make Me Hot” and the soulful shout-outs to true fans on “The Way You Do It” more impact.

There’s a lot of lyrics to parse, but WJLR’s omnipresence keeps things smooth and irreverent. The transitions between songs are seamless and drive home the comforting atmosphere of a 24-hour radio station. The conceptual reach occasionally exceeds its grasp—some of the skits and ideas drag—but ultimately Little Brother display a remarkable sense of satire and thematic control.

Shortly after the album was finished, a representative from ABB Records felt the potential and reached out to the trio off the strength of their Okayplayer fanbase. After signing with ABB in 2002, The Listening was officially released on February 25, 2003 to widespread acclaim. The Source labeled it “one of the most sonically cohesive hip-hop albums since The Blueprint.” The project didn’t chart, but it made waves on the internet and moved 34,000 units by 2005, a respectable number for an indie debut. Before they knew it, Little Brother had co-signs from DJ Premier, a profile on the MTV News show You Hear It First, and music with Questlove and Pete Rock. Engineer Young Guru was so impressed with 9th’s production work, he connected him with JAY-Z, who was interested in having 9th produce the song “Threat” for his 2003 farewell album The Black Album.

From apartment recordings to touring and making music with their idols, Little Brother came out the gate swinging. But it would be years before they were fully compensated for their work. Eighteen years later, in 2021, Phonte and Pooh revealed that ABB head Ben Nickelberry Jr. had been stiffing them on royalties since at least 2004. After a passionate fan campaign, the duo received the masters to the album and re-released The Listening—complete with instrumentals and bonus tracks—via Bandcamp and the new label Imagine Nation Music.

I’ve always been curious how an album like The Listening can be so tethered to the time it was created but still feel timeless. But I think it comes down to an ethos, one that Little Brother has maintained since dropping The Listening and The Minstrel Show; since 9th Wonder’s departure in 2007; since their breakup in 2010; throughout Phonte and Pooh’s respective solo careers and their reunion in 2018: no matter what kind of Southern hip-hop was trending or what the general public expected from them, Little Brother and the Justus League never second-guessed their vision.

Finding a small audience on the internet primed Little Brother to go for the jugular with their parody TV network UBN on their Atlantic debut, 2005’s The Minstrel Show. There would be no 5th & Fashion without WJLR call-ins; none of the note-perfect elder R&B satire of Percy Miracles without the sweaty charm of fake producer Roy Lee. Phonte’s unironic expansion into adult contemporary R&B with the Dutch producer Nicolay as the group The Foreign Exchange doesn’t happen without Little Brother’s relationship to the Okayplayer message boards. Pooh’s journey as an A&R and manager might not have begun if label negotiations hadn’t gone south. Without this album, 9th Wonder would’ve never produced for JAY-Z and Destiny’s Child.

All roads lead back to The Listening. Little Brother felt something was missing from the rap ecosystem and returned those minerals to the soil, influencing artists from Kendrick Lamar and Drake to Oddisee and Tanya Morgan. Seeing Doja Cat nerding out while rapping Phonte’s verse from “Speed” on Instagram Live this past December was a gratifying reminder that things go in cycles. Few ideas are new these days, but Little Brother formed a refreshing present from the bones of hip-hop’s past. 

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Little Brother - The Listening Music Album Reviews Little Brother - The Listening Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, February 06, 2022 Rating: 5

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