The Listening is one of the most important hip-hop debuts of the last five years. A bold statement, I know. But unlike other powerful first-timers, like say Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star or dead prez's Let's Get Free, where poetics and politics ruled, The Listening thrives on the power of its producer, 9th Wonder. 9th's serious approach to an old-school sound is the most impressive flow to come down the river in years. 9th could very well be hip-hop's next powerhouse beatminer.
Critics across the board have been eager to slap Little Brother with the "second coming of A Tribe Called Quest" label. Sure, it's an easy assertion. MCs Phonte and Big Pooh's breezy flow and undeniably positive and bouncy rhyme material make the comparison fairly obvious. But it's unfair to pigeonhole Little Brother's sound as a rehashing of De La Soul or Tribe. That doesn't even make sense, considering the vast difference between those two crews. What's so much more important about this music is the stereotype-shattering that the North Carolina rap group accomplish, and the arrival of a legitimate star behind the boards. There's no talk of "the dirty South" bling-bling or iced-out ho's. Just honest verses about youth, life and music, united with full, soulful backdrops.
Combining all the best parts of his heroes (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Jay Dee and RZA), 9th's blooming beats lie at the core of the trio's first offering. 9th's freshly eclectic production incorporates traditional sampling, quick-cut chopping à la Primo, soulful vocal tracks and grimy bass lines. On "The Way You Do It," 9th blends a twangy banjo and an orchestral violin to create a lovely jam. The soaring sample on "Speed" that cries "hoooooooold on" is layered over a muted cymbal loop. The song, a metaphor for how quickly life blows by, finds Phonte rhyming "Another day to face/ I'm sharecroppin' in this paper chase/ I take a deep breath and clear my database/ This afternoon I'm talkin' shit to my alarm clock/ 'cuz I gotta face this world/ A capitalistic onslaught." 9th doesn't hesitate to cut up his beat mid-song. He often interrupts the rhythm and lets Phonte and Pooh spit a cappella.
The skittish "Make Me Hot" jumps around a lively horn sample and mocks the record industry's obsession with the "new hot producer" ironic, coming from the man who most likely will soon serve time as the "it" producer. He lets Percy Miracles croon over the energetic pulse.
On "Love Joint Revisited" 9th offers a smattering of sliced vocals laced with an achy guitar and an oafish snare, while Phonte announces with glee "I love rap cuz it seems earnest/ Love this joint cuz we reworked it/ Love cell phones with free service/ And UNC downloadin' all my freestyles/ On desktop, hard drive MP3 files."
The Listening isn't all gravy. The radio-station format that the album uses is beyond played-out. It's practically Elizabethan. And Pooh and Phonte's fervent lyrics occasionally appear to be out of place over 9th's more airy soundscapes. On the otherwise ethereal "The Yo-Yo," Pooh says "Niggas wanna come in face/ Fuck that tofu/ I need a pork chop on my plate." Something about rainbows and cloudy skies might have been more appropriate.
Little Brother have established a mature sound on their debut that takes most hip-hop groups four or five albums to generate. We've been blessed with a new maestro who's not afraid to jump from the gritty boom-bap to some lighthearted layers. In fact, he just might be the 9th Wonder of the world.