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It's near midnight on an early April weekday, and as Little Brother emcee Phonte Coleman navigates North Carolina's I-540 between Raleigh and Durham, the group's latest (and unfortunately last) album, Leftback, jumps from the speakers. He nods his head to the syrupy beats, mouths the words to his and partner Big Pooh's raps, and occasionally swings his fingers across the dashboard, playing along to a particularly immaculate keyboard line. "Originally, it wasn't supposed to be this kind of an event," he notes, casually, when it's over, reflecting on the weirdly formal, strangely mature end to the underground hip-hop institution his group became.
A big, dumb thesis on Little Brother's break-up marking the end of "conscious rap" could be drummed up pretty easily, but that lofty label never meant much to the group. With 2003's The Listening, then-trio Phonte, Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder were handed the responsibility of resurrecting rap simply because that satisfied debut housed sensitive, working-class rhymes and vaguely throwback production. Ignored was the fact that they were just as likely to clown "next-level" vegan nonsense-spouters as they were radio-rap knuckleheads.
"The problem with a lot of quote-unquote 'conscious' rap, that whole movement . . ." Phonte lets out a sigh and keeps going. "I call it 'John Kerry hip-hop.' They ain't voting for you, they're just voting against that nigga. A lot of that fan base is rooted in elitism. 'I'm gonna listen to Little Brother because by listening to Little Brother, that makes me better than you motherfuckers listening to Gucci Mane.' Dude, if you like Gucci Mane's music, like it! Rock with us because you like us, not because of what you think it represents or whatever ideology you pulled out your ass and put on us."
Perpetually overrated (as rap's saviors) and underrated (as third-generation Native Tongue wannabes), Little Brother were at their best—and their most challenging—when they tuned out expectations and did whatever the hell they wanted. They brashly ended The Listening with a song that sampled hip-hop classic "T.R.O.Y." Their 2005 major-label debut was a spoiled, fuming, hilarious fuck-off of a concept album about the entertainment industry called The Minstrel Show, for chrissakes. And when things didn't feel right, they split with Atlantic Records (and a five-album deal) and dropped 9th Wonder, probably to the benefit of all parties involved.
Then 2007's Getback arrived—their weirdest, most personal, and best (yes, really) record. The group can also lay claim to the oddest entry in DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz series: DJ Drama & Little Brother: Separate but Equal is a fully realized set of originals from a mixtape movement best known as the place for Southern crack rappers' freestyles. Once the type of person worried about the state of hip-hop stopped expecting this or that from Little Brother, their work got bolder. "I always told people," reflects Big Pooh, lounging at a Raleigh sports bar a week or so after my drive with Phonte. "Don't put us in a box, or you'll be disappointed.'"
Phonte and Pooh have casually tossed around the word "hiatus" for almost two years now, but they decided to record Leftback and make the end of Little Brother official. It's a kind gesture for rap fans used to kinda-sorta-broken-up duos (Can you say "Outkast"?) and a good look for their prospective solo careers. Now, Phonte's Grammy-nominated, grown-man r&b outfit the Foreign Exchange and Pooh's increasingly confident solo work aren't just, as Phonte describes it, "us fuckin' off until the next Little Brother record."
"One thing we didn't want to do is one long, drawn-out goodbye or final lap or swan song," Big Pooh explains. "We just wanted to make a record." Speaking to Phonte and Pooh separately, it's surprising how much they echo one another. And if that's the case, why call it quits? Phonte breaks it down: "If you're doing business with a friend, you gotta decide, well, do I end this business relationship and keep my friendship? Or do I continue this business relationship and end up wrecking both?"
So, yeah, Leftback is the final Little Brother album, but save for "Curtain Call," the legacy-in-review opening track, there's very little meta-commentary or bittersweet reminiscing to gum up these 13 tracks. Instead, it's simply the hardest, most rapping-est album of the group's career. No skits and all hits, every beat bounces into the next, the songs either relationship raps equal parts touching and hilarious ("Table for Two," "Second Chances," "What We Are") or catchy (and angry) verbal exercises ("Revenge," "Get Enough Pt. 2," "24") that find Phonte, Pooh, and friends doing everything they can to out-rap each other. There's something perversely unsentimental about it. A telling couplet from "Curtain Call": "And not even Clarissa could explain it all/You mad with me? Tough titty, get a training bra." Damn. "24," the album's final track (and, by definition, the last Little Brother track ever) doesn't even bother with a hook, a feast of battle-rap shit-talk and howling, glitch-inspired boom bap (if you can imagine that) that promptly, awkwardly, anti-climactically cuts out after Pooh's verse. That's it.