Earlier this year, revered MCs Phonte and Big Pooh announced that they were reuniting as Little Brother. Even though the reunion doesn’t include producer 9th Wonder, an original member, the groups’ cult fanbase eagerly awaited the next entry to their unheralded catalog. They didn’t have to wait long. On, Tuesday, August 20th, Little Brother released their fifth studio album May the Lord Watch.
Little Brother’s last album, Leftback, was released nine years ago. But Phonte and Pooh sound so in sync on May the Lord Watch that it might as well have been nine months ago. The North Carolina stalwarts laced production from a suite of accomplished producers, including Justus League partner Khrysis, Focus, Nottz, and Black Milk, who produced the gem “Picture This.”
Day one fans were welcomed back into the Little Brother Universe with open arms. There’s so much to say about the project, which is a return to form for the duo. Here are the 10 major takeaways from May the Lord Watch.
Little Brother’s 2005 The Minstrel Show album featured a fictional network called UBN, which was loosely based on BET. Hilarious characters like Percy Miracles and skits like “Diary Of A Mad Black Daddy” satirized Black pop culture with an over-the-top precision that had listeners doubled over in between nodding their head. Little Brother brought the network back on May the Lord Watch, much to fans’ delight.
Seeing album producers and figures like Jemele Hill post their UBN badges on social media evoked a sense of nostalgia among longtime supporters. The campaign showed that the group knows how to operate in the age of viral marketing.
The inclusion of UBN wasn’t a mere stunt, however. The album’s skits were hilarious, from the good-natured pot shots at Joe Scudda on “Life After Blackface” to a snippet of Questlove’s interview with Roy Lee. There’s also a sharp commentary in Peter Rosenberg’s ascension to UBN President that isn’t lost on anyone who advocates for the “for us, by us,” protection of Black culture.
Recurring skits like UBN, when done right, can widen the scope of an album’s sonic universe. And it’s safe to say Little Brother executed as good as any act ever. Listeners legitimately bemoaned the death of Percy Miracles on social media, a sign that the parodic amalgamation of raunchy soul singers was well crafted and struck a chord as a beloved fictional character in the annals of rap.
A Twitter user raised a fuss Tuesday night when they opined that “Phonte sounds like Drake” on May the Lord Watch. Rap fans who came of age in a time when Drake was already one of the biggest stars may find it conceivable that such an influential figure had influences, but every hip-hop head of a certain age knows the preposterous irony of that claim.
Phonte wasn’t only an early archetype for Drake (who has repeatedly admitted it), but also artists like Kanye West, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and so many other MCs who subverted the bulletproof, hyper-masculine depictions of rap supremacy for the humble, cleverly-crafted musings of manhood that Phonte demonstrates to perfection on May the Lord Watch.
It’s a shame that commercial accolades and marketing weigh so inordinately in most rap fans’ formula for greatness. Phonte called himself the “best rapper in 2019” on Tuesday. He may not have titanic sales figures or rooms full of trophies, but songs like “All In A Day” and “Sittin Alone” give him a strong case.
Rhyming alongside a generational talent is a hard gig. Hip-hop fans tend to attribute a Batman and Robin dynamic to rap duos that, even when justified, end up with “Robin” being treated as a distant second if not resented. That’s happened to Big Pooh, who has at times been unfairly characterized as a weak link in Little Brother.
But two things can be true. One can admit that they prefer Phonte as a rhymer but also admit that Pooh is a pretty damn good MC who sounds as sharp as ever on May the Lord Watch. He held his own with Phonte throughout the album, excelling with his verses on “Right On Time” and “What I Came For.”
Phonte and Pooh are at the top of their game on May the Lord Watch, and it’s attributable to both their natural chemistry and creative process. Pooh said on Instagram that the two recorded the entire project together, once again hammering home the power of making music together in the same space. If the project was a two month e-mail exchange, we’d probably be able to tell. It’s obvious that the two have a creative synergy that no amount of time or distance can corrode.
The obvious elephant in the room is the absence of producer 9th Wonder, who shaped the soulful soundscape of the first two Little Brother albums. While it would be great to have seen the three locked in on May the Lord Watch, Phonte and Big Pooh did an excellent job of following Getback’s blueprint and picking a suite of beats that were true to the sound that fans loved them for.
While 9th’s presence was missed, the production on the album is incredible. The Little Brother blueprint is apparent in the smooth basslines, head-nodding drums, soulful hooks, and dreamy synths that define the project.
It’s easy to see that the Khrysis, Nottz, and Black Milk offered up the best. They knew the magnitude of a Little Brother reunion album and brought the heat in 9th’s stead.
One can glean from the album’s title that spirituality would be a heavy theme on May the Lord Watch. But Phonte and Pooh were discerning enough not to immerse us in sanctimoniousness or pretension, instead naturally looping in summative gems like Phonte’s “I was goin’ through a storm and asked the Lord ‘Why?’ And when he finally brought me out, I asked the same thing” on “Right On Time.” Both MCs do a good job of demonstrating that spiritual fulfillment isn’t a destination, it’s a lifelong path.
On “Work Through Me Lord,” Phonte sprinkles in the title phrase like a mantra in between deft lyricism that cleverly pulls from religious reference such as, “Pastor Tigallo, spot the difference. Boom baptism, this a christening, you already know, it’s showtime.” It’s a clever approach that centers the song but doesn’t drown it, leaving him room to reflect on his career come up and drop dope lines like, “when my Company Flow just like Mr. Len.”
May the Lord Watch follows stellar solo work from both Phonte and Big Pooh, as well as well-regarded offerings from the likes of Black Thought, Pusha-T, Freddie Gibbs, Rick Ross, and other rap veterans. It wasn’t so long ago that fans wondered how veteran rap acts could age gracefully — now the 35 plus crowd is arguably putting out some of the best work every year.
Little Brother’s latest effort is a testament to the results of an artist refining their craft. There have been some fans who are already saying May the Lord Watch is their favorite Little Brother — an album released almost 20 years after their breakthrough. The widespread praise shows that there’s no reason for age to slow down a dedicated MC. If anything, your pen can only get sharper.
Even so-called grown-man rap has been too susceptible to crass objectification and eye-rolling tropes from men who aren’t as mature as they’d want listeners to believe. Thankfully, Little Brother speak on their love lives in a manner that’s true to the life of the average 35 year-old man.
“Sittin Alone” is a gem where both guys admit that club life has passed them by and reflect on the disparate ways that they deal with the circumstance. Big Pooh laments that “my new normal ain’t normal at all,” then rhymes about trying to hit up Instagram but, ultimately, quitting the mission and going to sleep while wishing he “was there where the action at.” He explores a refreshing vulnerability in an age where every rapper is selling a fantasy of constant conquest.
Phonte is dropping insight on his new normal of the club as “torment” through the hilarious, observation that he pretends “to be excited, watchin’ bitches Diddy Bop, when you would rather be at home watchin’ Flip or Flop.”
“Sittin Alone” is a quintessential example of the two MCs using their sense of humor and uncommon candor to tell an ever-relatable story.
It’s time for Little Brother to push beyond cult, “if you know, you know” status. The entire music world should appreciate their late career effort. Rap purists often reference the devotion that legacy rock acts receive in comparison to most veteran hip-hop acts who see their profile dwindle. Here’s our chance to change the circumstance and treat Little Brother like they deserve.
It’s well known that The Grammys seemingly lose credibility by the year. But if they exist, they should be challenged to get it right. The Grammys’ eligibility cutoff date is August 31st. It’s safe to say there won’t be many rap albums better than this coming out in the next 10 days, and there haven’t been too many better albums to drop since last August. This album should at least be in consideration for a Best Rap Grammy nomination.
But beyond mainstream s signifiers, the rap game needs to celebrate Little Brother as one of the few acts — alongside A Tribe Called Quest —to drop such a strong album after a prolonged hiatus. With their latest effort, they’re now in a position to enter uncharted territory as a “big brother” for an entirely new generation of MCs.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.
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