Little Brother

Leftback

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Expectations always run high when the listening public is alerted to the fact that a certain artist or group is working on a final album, a situation that makes for stricter critical and popular reception. Would The Love Movement, for example, have been judged so harshly if fans hadn't known it would be the last Tribe LP and weren't acutely aware of the discography that came before it? With this in mind, what's billed as the last studio album from Little Brother -- arguably the most prominent underground group to come out in the 2000s -- is a bittersweet affair. Nevertheless, Phonte and Big Pooh aren't shedding any tears. "You could call this the denouement," is how Phonte puts it on the upbeat album-opener, "Curtain Call," and Pooh keeps with the literary themes: "This is it, the last monologue, last act in the play/You could say the epilogue/New books to begin, dear friends/You can always press rewind and relive it again." But that's just about all we get in terms of wistful introspection. The North Carolina duo keeps things moving, doing what it's always done -- delivering next-level lyrics that strike a perfect balance between traditional MC boastfulness, clever commentaries on the quotidian, and brainy mike skills. Khrysis handles most of the production and, while for many the Justus League beatsmith's work might not reach the same level of mastery as 9th Wonder's, his use of lofty strings, crisp drums, and chunky bass arrangements does the job; in other words, he almost lets us forget that it's not 9th behind the boards. As far as lyrical content, Leftback has its share of love/relationship joints ("Table for Two," "Second Changes," "What We Are") and musings on the nightlife ("After the Party," "Two Step Blues," "Before the Night Is Over"). Here, Little Brother's approach helps illustrate what sets them apart from much of their contemporary hip-hop brethren. Images of materialism and seduction are tinged with sarcasm, and while their party-oriented songs are definitely danceable, the lyrics are more preoccupied with the trappings of the nightlife. "It's like nobody wanna live they life/They just wanna reenact the same scene every night" is Phonte's weary assessment on "After the Party." Still, Leftback's standout track comes in the form of "Tigallo for Dolo," a three-minute hookless lyrical tirade from Phonte that should do well to whet fans' appetites for the MC's solo work. Upon first listen, Leftback might not meet the high expectations awaiting it, but these 13 strong tracks of intelligent and soulful hip-hop are still head and shoulders above most of Little Brother's contemporaries.

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