By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
The Minstrel ShowPhonte, Big Pooh, and Ninth Wonder's second album as Little Brother and first for Atlantic Recordsis a potentially career-derailing parody of the rap industry, BET, and even their own record label. Perhaps as a consequence, Atlantic has hardly promoted it, while Rap City didn't even bother to air its lead video, "I'm Lovin' It." Take note, young musicians: It's not wise to bite the hands that feed you.
As a big bamboozle, The Minstrel Show is half-smart, less dedicated to exposing rap industry's peccadilloes than to tossing off clever joke tracks such as "Cheatin'," where Phonte's alter ego Percy Miracles plays R. Kelly in the wake of Ronald Isley's Mister Biggs. Mostly, however, Phonte and Big Pooh lash out at their enemies real and perceived. "Today's rap fan is tomorrow's rap critic," Phonte gripes on "Still Lives Through." Elsewhere, two wiggas, "Spencer" and "Tucker," dismiss Big Pooh. "He's the weakest link . . . I heard that nigga got dropped from Soundclick," "Tucker" laughs (then subsequently tells "Spencer," "I'm sorry I missed your bar mitzvah"). Big Pooh's subsequent flurry on "Sincerely Yours""I walk with the swag of a letterman/No amateur here, but a veteran"is convincing enough, if somewhat ponderous. But why does he waste his time addressing a gaggle of indie-rap gossips when millions of potential fans haven't even heard of him?
The Minstrel Show is something of a sophomore slump for the hundreds of thousands who championed The Listening, Little Brother's 2003 debut on Oakland indie ABB Records, buzzing over Ninth Wonder's throwback samples and Phonte's everyman meditations on fatherhood and coffeehouse snobs. It's aiight, but the rhymes aren't as compelling, the beats aren't as fresh, and the songs aren't as tight. Even "I'm Lovin' It," Ninth Wonder's lusciously scratchy interpolation of the Stylistics' "One Night Affair" and the closest thing to a standout cut, is marred by crew member Joe Scudda's dumbass declaration, "I wake up in the morning holdin' my dick/Goin' through life like I know I'm the shit."
Nevertheless, it's tough to watch Little Brother get jerked by their record label. A worrying tension runs throughout The Minstrel Show; the embattled trio would even make for good martyrs if they weren't so thin-skinned.