Though North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement helped produce one of the state’s first protest-music subcultures in years, the focus of its sounds and songs felt limited. The NC Music Love Army’s output stemmed mostly from legislation circulated by the state’s General Assembly, not years of ongoing state-sponsored attacks on black and brown lives. The contributions of poets Dasan Ahanu and Shirlette Ammons and an offshoot “Remix Army” notwithstanding, the Love Army and the Moral Monday movement at large lacked a connection to the hip-hop community. Despite the NAACP connection, the outspoken seemed pale. Then Ferguson happened.

Area hip-hop acts and ambassadors like Phonte Coleman, The Koolest, The Beast, Big Lah and Min. Paul Scott soon released their own rap laments, lending newfound urgency to protest music. Add Coleman’s former Little Brother mate, Rapper Big Pooh, to that roster.

In February, Pooh released “Stop,” the first single from his Apollo Brown-produced EP, Words Paint Pictures. Pooh used to rap about his individuality and strengths as a solo emcee, often seeming like a nice guy down to rhyme about sports and sweets. Suddenly, though, he was pouncing on issues bigger than his hip-hop reputation: “Dehumanized before you’re even lowered in the dirt … Now who afraid of whom?/Cops drawin’ guns on black males like high noon.”

On “Promise Land,” Pooh drills into a wall of pianos and snares, unraveling destructive layers of private prisons, materialism, taxation, media literacy and drug addiction. West Coast pontificator Ras Kass joins for “Eyes Wide Open,” taking shots at CNN and Obama. Pooh empties his cynicism across these tracks, describing the problems instead of pretending like he has the solutions.

These positions represent a radical shift for Pooh, especially for his first release with the respected imprint Mello Music Group. With this seven-song political platter, he’s built a healthy, musical distance from the “raw rap” of the Triangle-based Justus League empire he helped build a decade ago. For one of the first times since Little Brother’s end, he’s added new dimensions to his own empire. “I remember when they said my verses wasn’t hard,” he offers. Some of us don’t remember those days at all; even if we did, who cares now that this older emcee is taking new chances?

Label: Mello Music Group