Little Brother 

The Listening

North Carolina hasn't exactly been known as a mecca for hip-hop, which could now change as Little Brother comes of age. "The fly shit is easy to get stuck on/I pen joints for you to vibe or get your fuck on," Big Pooh declares on the opening track. The song addresses hoochies who lust for the allegedly fat pockets of rap artists, even though, let's face it, debut indie hip-hoppers aren't likely candidates for any profile in Fortune magazine.

Wanna-be MCs begging for hot tracks to rhyme over are chastised as well on The Listening. "You ain't getting no beats, you groupie-ass nigga -- not even a hi-hat!!," calling to mind DJ Premier's keep-it-real diatribes.

Preemo is an obvious reference point for this trio, as are A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, the Roots, Pete Rock, and Mos Def. But while The Listening contains familiar elements (big-beat snares, beat-diggin' loops, witty brag-raps), we can forgive this next-generation squad for sounding like the sum of its influences. The group proves adept at taking well-worn clichés and flipping them in interesting ways. Producer 9th Wonder's clever arrangement on "Whatever You Say" stacks Phonte and Big Pooh's staccato rhymes up against fluid female background vocals and syrupy strings, elevating a basic holler-at-me-baby song to well above the mediocre. And while rebuking playa-haters is nothing new, "The Yo Yo," which refers to bohemian coffee shop types as "niggas lookin' bitch trying to read poems" who "try to battle me with sandals and capris on," is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The Listening's most appealing quality might be its unabashed appreciation for the hip-hop artform itself, and on "Love Joint Revisited," Little Brother states its raison d'être: "We ain't trying to be thugs in it/we just want to spread love in it."

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