Little Brother has been pushing the platform of “Dope beats, dope rhymes: What more can y’all want?” its whole career. Sure, they first dropped that motto on “Not Enough,” a track from their 2005 major-label debut and finale The Minstrel Show. But it was by then only a response to those who were constantly nitpicking the trio’s throwback styletwo emcees and the snare-based drum sequences of then-producer 9th Wonder. “So much to discuss so frustrated/ Yes, I must say that the industry lost touch,” lead emcee Phonte Coleman lashed cheerfully. “Radio better play this, ’cause Tay’s style is nuts/ And y’all’s is just dated.”
After 9th Wonder’s departure in 2007, Little Brother enlisted a number of different producers for its third album, Getback. Their most diverse outing yet, it alienated those who couldn’t get over the idea of Little Brother rapping over beats that didn’t sound like those from their 2003 breakthrough, The Listening. Little Brother was trapped, then, by the expectations of old-school zealots and the hip-hop marketplace.
LeftBack, Little Brother’s fourth and final album, is a continuation and termination of the group’s steady expansion. Equal parts welcoming party and send-off, it’s, again, Little Brother’s most diverse album to date. A song like “Revenge,” for instance, wouldn’t have been possible for Little Brother even four years ago. Featuring Truck North and Justus League emcee Median, Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh tackle a dim theme without losing its convivial spirit or straining yours, defeating that toughguy/backpacker binary once and for all.
In fact, Leftback peaks with two Little Brother looks we’ve never seen before: Soulmen Bilal and Darien Brockington tag-team the Denaun Porter-produced “Second Chances,” while Khrysis, who became Little Brother’s longtime in-house engineer and producer after 9th Wonder stepped into the shadows, raps over his own beat for “Get Enough.” Stepping from behind the production boards and into the booth, he shows off some surprisingly well-quilted emcee skills. Alongside Phonte and Pooh in the chorus, he proclaims, “I ain’t get enough/ and he ain’t get enough/ and she ain’t get enough/ and we ain’t get enough/ and they ain’t get enough,” implicitly referencing 2005’s “Not Enough.”
And they’re right: Little Brother’s tumultuous career and faded potential feel like unfulfilled quantities. On Leftback, they again prove that making songs was always the easiest part, if getting the world to connect with them has long been one of the toughest. Pooh’s charming persistence and Phonte’s clever, affable persona as an emcee made for a delightful pair, at least for a time. “Like I was the chosen, one for flowin’/ I’m done, the rap games no country for old men/ I always spit whenever the spirit hits me/ but fuck if I’m gonna be doin this shit when I’m 60,” Phonte rhymes on “Tigallo for Dolo.”
To the rap-happy fan, a world where Phonte isn’t firing off consecutive clusters of smart punch lines anymore might be a tad bleak. But with his Grammy-nominated project The Foreign Exchange, he’s found another, more stable outlet. A full-time role as a singer, songwriter and arranger simply makes more sense for an older soul patriot. At this point, it doesn’t make sense for him to reapply coat after coat of the same wax that’s already given him respect and shine. As for Pooh, aside from several mixtape-like projects, he still has yet to release the true follow-up to his 2005 solo LP, Sleepers. The question about whether or not he is ready to stand on his own has largely been answered, an idea furthered by his work on Leftback. He’s progressively confident here. “Great in my own mind/ I’ll let the world find out on their own time,” Pooh lashes out on “Go Off Go On.”
Dope beats, dope rhymes …