Little Brother: May the Lord Watch 


[Aug. 20; Imagine Nation Music/For Members Only/EMPIRE]

Almost right after the release of Little Brother’s May the Lord Watch, someone—surprise, surprise—said something super dumb about it on Twitter: that Phonte sounded like Drake.

Of course, it’s the other way around. The Durham duo of Phonte and Big Pooh, which is reuniting—still sans original producer 9th Wonder—at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival in September, has a wide-enough influence that many people already knew that. (From pre-fascist Kanye to sturdy J. Cole, it’s tough to imagine today’s self-effacing, self-righteous rap without Little Brother.) Still, Phonte was typically amused by the ill-informed young gun.

“Lol. Kids say the darndest things,” he tweeted.

So yeah, May the Lord Watch, released last week after a nine-year album gap, is for the fans that already know. Gooey boom-bap meets exuberant, reasonable R&B on busy beats from producers Focus, Khrysis, Nottz, and other people who aren’t 9th. They soundtrack relationship rhymes about being grown, appreciative, and still confused a lot of the time.

May the Lord Watch also resurrects 2005 classic The Minstrel Show’s “UBN” concept, satirizing corporations cashing in on blackness. While this is comfort food for LB obsessives, it also recasts the group’s pointed comedy as a precedent for post-woke absurdism (think Paul Beatty’s The Sellout or Donald Glover’s Atlanta).

In-jokes and meta-commentary abound, evoking the casual charm and camaraderie of debut The Listening, which makes this “comeback” feel more like a proper sendoff than 2010’s defiant, unsentimental “retirement” record, Leftback. May the Lord Watch is for those who are growing up, trying to be mindful, and making do—so, most of us.

Pooh is a model of scrappy vulnerability, rapping about driving Uber for extra cash, cooking breakfast for his girl, and how he’s still a little giddy to have a cult rap career. And Phonte, whose joy in rapping permeates every artful or tossed-off rhyme, is melancholy or impervious, depending on the winding couplet. Here are a few lines about a friend who is fucking around: “He admitted, ‘My sex drive is fuckin’ me’ / Man’s in recovery / But relapse into a pair of double D’s / Somewhere inside a fuckin’ DoubleTree / Right outside Montgomery.”

Phonte is a chronicler of aging—“Sittin’ Alone” is a whole song about how most things, but especially the internet, are exasperating—and a chronicler of the age. On “Black Magic (Make It Better),” he and Pooh celebrate the little things (watching ESPN, eating lemon-pepper wings) while unspooling a long history of escaping exploitation, going independent, getting free and well, and doing the work.

Like the rest of May the Lord Watch, it’s both comforting and radical, the latest paradoxical commandment from a funny, hard-rapping institution few thought we’d see return.

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