Darien Brockington
Somebody to Love
(Hall of Justus/ ABB)

Justus League affiliate Darien Brockington has been a potent hook-maker, most notably on Little Brother’s album The Minstrel Show. With his velvety voice and confident delivery, he’s great at coming up with catchy nuggets to soften the edges of rap verses. As such, it’s hard to figure out why his new solo album, Somebody to Love, resembles a poorly packed tackle box. D-Brock: You forget your hooks.

Brockington has raw talent to spare. His harmonies are unimpeachable, and he’s equally comfortable singing from the diaphragm or in a quivering falsetto. His delivery is respectably subtle. But here, Brockington seems torn between old-fashioned soul and modern pop’s R&B (read: poppy catch phrases over rap beats). He splits the difference and winds up with an album that’s as tepid as it is accomplished, laying shapeless vocal fodder over rigid 9th Wonder and 9th-acolytic soul templates. Given that approach, highs and lows are few: The bells-rocking “More & More” suffers from a superfluous rap cameo from Chaundon, but the Little Brother-assisted “I Need You” provides a much needed injection of energy with its svelte funk and superhero synth stabs.

At its best, Somebody to Love recalls the work that Steve Spacek and the late Dilla did together. The “Somebody to Love” intro, for instance–with its humming strings, tinkling chimes, skeletal kick drum and hypnotically layered vocals–floats and propels. Overall, though, Somebody to Love floats idly in some middle distance: Brockington always sounds good but rarely establishes dominant melodies. The tracks feel sluggish, blurring together anonymously. That Brockington chose to name one of them “Crazy”–in this, the year of Gnarls–only exacerbates the feeling that Somebody to Love would have fared better if Brockington had been either much more or much less conservative. –Brian Howe

Little Brother
The Commercial Free EP
(Atlantic Records)

Don’t ever tell the guys in Little Brother that they can’t go home again. On this live record, captured before a warmed-up crowd last October at the now-closed Hillsborough Street Record Exchange, Little Brother interacts with the audience like neighbors back from a long trip. Of course, two nights before, they had played to a manic, sold-out crowd at the Cat’s Cradle, a triumphant return from a two-month tour behind The Minstrel Show. They have been on a wild ride since their days recording in the dorms at NCCU, but here, as always, they share that limelight with their extended Justus League family.

Joe Scudda appears on the single “Lovin’ It,” and he livens some between-song banter. The crowd chants “straight R and B” as League crooner-in-residence Darien Brockington gets on the mic, and L.E.G.A.C.Y. joins for a spirited take on the previously unreleased “The Olio.” We even hear an on-the-road anecdote about the Away Team’s Sean Boog and his wondrous techniques with a smoothie. It’s intimate and fun, but the sound quality varies wildly, and the ratio of music tracks to chatting is about split down the middle.

Crowd-pumping continues throughout, but Phonte and Big Pooh reach out specifically to aspiring local hip-hop heads with words of encouragement. They declare that it can happen to locals. This snapshot of a Little Brother show at home in the Triangle–something their fans have come to relish as a rarity–is rightfully highlighted by their solid respect for their humble start right here. –Chris Toenes

Hall of Justus
Soldiers of Fortune
(ABB Records)

In July, Little Brother created a minor Internet tizzy when a blogger at XXL criticized the Durham group for calling hip-hop fans stupid while opening for Southern stars Rick Ross, Three Six Mafia, Young Joc and Dem Franchise Boyz in Fayetteville. In the past year, Little Brother and their Justus League affiliates have seen the music industry’s frustrations from the front lines. Their second record, The Minstrel Show, only moved 80,000 copies despite being released by Atlantic Records. With a major-label deal still backing them, now–if ever–would be the time for Little Brother to switch its plans and cash in. They’re certainly capable.

But Soldiers of Fortune–a glorified mixtape with proper distribution, featuring most of the Hall of Justus crew and a handful of guests like Brooklyn’s Skyzoo–feels like a triumphant bit of staying the course. The 19 tracks here mine the same sample-and-thin-drums that Hall of Justus has built its reputation around (even though Soldiers of Fortune borrows heavily from outside production), but it expands the collective’s lyrical panache: While Phonte still flips three-way-funny rhymes, new blood from Jozeemo flies down another tip, his empirical street knowledge flashing out above beats that put the emphasis on his timbre and text.

Such script-sticking has its highs and lows: L.E.G.A.C.Y. has never sounded as confidently settled as he does on opener “Basic,” trading off of the end of a Pooh verse and stepping perfectly over sinister Twilight Zone keyboards courtesy of Irv: “I’m not arrogant/ I’m just that clever.” Pooh leads the first verse of the subsequent “Try Me Again,” too, stepping heavy over kaleidoscopic 9th Wonder samples that prop up Jozeemo’s beefy debut with the League. Jozeemo instantly establishes himself as one of the most able wordsmiths walking these Halls, dropping polysyllabic sequences like “If it’s on, then I’m ready dude/ Four steps ahead of you/ Contemplate, calculate and pray is what ya’ better do.” Jozeemo’s lone solo track–a swaggered bounce riding bright guitar-and-horn samples care of blooming Justus man Khrysis–is a tantamount success, indicating that long-held doubts about his inability to do anything other than spit hard freestyles at battles should fade fast. This is a rap song in the best sense.

Still, L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s solo turn on “I Want to Know” is hyperbolically and hypocritically harsh to the point of being silly. Joe Scudda still seems a bit afraid to jump on a track with anything new, his delivery on “Secret” almost reticent and tentative, more content to spit half-truths about your girl than to tell you anything about the voice in the booth. And Soldiers’ joke track, “Jus’ Chillin’,” is the kind of Dirty South, big-bottom biting that these guys should have eclipsed by now. Still, from Phonte’s “You sheep ass niggas can shut the flock up” flip to Chaundon’s Amsterdam references, Soldiers is worth some time. –Grayson Currin