Stolen from Alex over at KevinNottingham.com
There’s something to be said for judging an album’s place in history based on its provocativeness. If we look back at some undeniably classic records, each challenged the status quo in important ways. Whether in form and content or through publicity-related events, we remember particular albums because of their ability to leave an imprint felt well beyond the typical shelf life. Classic albums are those that can be listened to outside of their original context, yet, when brought up in discussion, are always talked about as inseparable from their particular origin. We talk about Illmatic in the context of 1994 Queens, just as we talk about Straight Outta Compton in 1988 Los Angeles. These are undoubtedly classic albums that we all listen to on a regular basis, but there’s something undeniably contextualized about them that keeps bringing us back to the time and place in which they were conceived.
Based on this mode of analysis, there should be no doubt about Little Brother’s infamous record,The Minstrel Show, as a certified, no brainer classic. Honestly, I was left scratching my head for a good while when I took on the assignment. This is a Hip Hop-defining album for me in ways only a handful of others are. Few albums in the ‘2000s have incited more fervor and debate than Phonte,Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder’s most notorious record. If we indulge the idea that to provoke an audience is necessary for classic material, then Little Brother gets a check mark and then some for the veritable media storm that surrounded Minstrel Show. Starting with the album’s anticipation following the critically acclaimed The Listening, expectations were at an unprecedented high for a group being hailed the heir apparent to ‘90s legends like ATCQ. Toss in 9th Wonder’s rapidly growing popularity thanks to Jay-Z’s “Threat,” and few artists were as hyped as LB. Making matters more interesting, between the controversy with its rating in The Source (for those that don’t know, then Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Ratcliffe resigned over a dispute regarding the album’s published rating) and BET’s refusal to play the lead video (more on that in a minute), The Minstrel Show has to have one of the greatest ratios of press generated to first week sales (only 18,000 sold) in recent memory.
So, if the album ignited this much debate in the public sphere, there must be something about it that provokes listeners and critics alike. All of which brings us to the work itself. Starting with the opening skit, “Welcome to the Minstrel Show,” the group toys with contentious, centuries-old issues of race, gender, and art, setting the stage for the album’s major question to be posited—is popular Hip Hop merely a contemporary form of minstrelsy, with its thoughtlessness and conformity?
Tracks like “Not Enough” and “Hiding Place” (which features a great verse from Elzhi) tell the complicated story of Te’ and Pooh’s struggles to get radio play alongside personal trials in relationships and life. This is the type of storytelling central to most of LB’s work, using their personal lives to explain their professional, displaying an unparalleled ability to show the complexities of their lives in their music. If there’s any recurring theme on the record beyond that of minstrelsy, it’s that there’s no way to extricate life from art, as the two have an eerie way of mirroring one another. Lines like, “Been a long time coming but damn we just made it/so much to discuss, so frustrated/ yes I must say that the industry lost touch” are multilayered, applicable to LB’s music as much as Phonte’s personal life.
When I first started bumping this record, the thing that immediately stood out was the cockiness with which Phonte and Pooh seemingly take on the entire rap universe. Everyone from R&B sex symbols to shallow bling rappers is fair game, and the group takes all to task. There’s an overwhelming sense of humor to the entire album with tracks like, “Cheatin” showcasing not just Phonte’s knack for singing, but the playfulness with which they call out shallow music. Similarly, the brilliantly crafted skits woven throughout link songs together and further the group’s overarching metaphor, likening the current state of Hip Hop to thinly veiled minstrelsy. No one can deny that these skits are some of the most creatively developed album accessories in recent history. They not only entertain in hilarious manners, but they actually work to push the album to an entirely new level with their pointed criticism of stereotyping and perceptions of black families.
This playfulness and the added bravado-quality position the album in stark contrast to the public’s preconceptions (or perhaps misguided hopes) of what LB’s sophomore follow up would sound like. When people debate this album’s true merit, there are a couple of different ways in which they discuss it. The first is that Little Brother likens itself to their predecessors (ATCQ, De La Soul, etc.), yet their music doesn’t promote the positive images of blackness and restructured sense of identity that the Native Tongues movement launched a decade-plus prior. The second major strike againstThe Minstrel Show lies on the other end of the spectrum. Many feel the album’s criticism of Hip Hop is unfounded, that, especially at the time it came out, there was plenty of intelligent, important music coming from the likes of Kanye West, Outkast, and a vibrant underground scene. The final argument stems from the idea that Little Brother doesn’t take a big enough stand against the Mike Jones and Young Jocs of the world, again calling out the unwarranted comparisons to the Native Tongues movement of previous generations.
Yet, we know that LB has tried to counter these critiques as Big Pooh and Phonte explain on “Say It Again,” as they rap: “And no, I’m not the heir apparent to whoever…/They never could out hit us/Tried to think fast but never could out wit us/ The only thing they could ever do was outfit us.” Lines like these challenge the notion that Little Brother was trying to follow any group’s lead, and also firmly calls out dimwitted rappers who rely on distractions like jewelry and clothes to look the part, choosing style of substance.
The biggest issue I have with the above criticisms is that they are oppositional. One can’t criticize an album for being too smart and not smart enough at the same time. Yet that’s exactly what happened toThe Minstrel Show. The infamous BET controversy that I alluded to earlier exemplifies the difficulties of trying to tightrope walk between the mainstream and the conscious crowds. On their lead single, “Lovin It,” the group crafted a video that unequivocally sums up the album while also managing to address each of the aforementioned criticisms that the group has faced. From the visuals displaying packing boxes labeled with different rapper stereotypes (gangsta, backpacker,icy, etc.) to the matter of fact rhymes (“When Te pull his verses out/promoters pull they purses out”), there isn’t a song/video combination that better sums up what Little Brother is all about—they are dope artists who won’t be put in boxes, and at the end of the day, they don’t care how you compare them because they’re succeeding. Apparently BET disagreed. For the major network, it was problematic for LB to make these kinds of statements to a mainstream public audience, revealing the poorly concealed fact that Hip Hop is all about categorizations and fans eat that up. So, they chose not to run the video…at all.
What we also have with these sorts of criticisms and censorship attempts aimed at The Minstrel Show is a public response to an album that is overwhelmingly provocative in its message. It simultaneously calls out Hip Hop for presenting watered down versions of blackness while allowing Little Brother to differentiate themselves from the stereotypical conscious rap group. As a result, some critics feel compelled to continue the comparison to golden era alternative Hip Hop; for them, this means that The Minstrel Show can never be considered classic because it isn’t Midnight Marauders. On the other hand, fans argue that Hip Hop doesn’t need a savior and Little Brother is just upset because of the lack of album sales generated for their brand of rap.
The ultimate reality is that people missed the boat. Those that deny The Minstrel Show its status as a classic are ignoring the work itself and focusing on the surrounding controversies. Whether it’s Te rapping about his struggles as a father, Big Pooh taking shit talkers to task, or 9th elevating his production to a level only few have reached, The Minstrel Show has all of the elements of a true classic, and does it in the face of extreme adversity. They don’t mind the naysayers; in fact, that’s largely what the album is all about. People can say what they want and try to keep good Hip Hop down, but ultimately, one listen to the album proves that talent wins out:
“Dope beats, dope rhymes/What more do ya’ll want?”