May The Lord Watch
Imagine Nation Music/For Members Only/EMPIRE
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I never realized just how much I’d missed Little Brother until they released their reunion album May The Lord Watch last week. I’d long been a fan of the crew, but after they’d released Leftback (2010), which was announced as their final album, I’d believed the group had run its course. Besides, Phonte Coleman, Thomas “Rapper Big Pooh” Jones, and Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit had been cultivating careers outside of the group for years, as rappers, rapper/singers, and producers, so if they had decided to move on, it was cool.
Then, after listening to Little Brother’s first album in 9 years, I pondered how I ever thought that hip-hop could go on without them. May The Lord Watch is a revelation and one of the best albums of the year.
And to think that this reunion was set in motion by Royce Da 5’9” missing a flight. According to the mini-documentary Homecoming, Royce was supposed to perform at the 2018 Art of Cool festival in Durham, North Carolina, but missed his flight. With just hours to go before the show started, organizers of the festivals reached out to Phonte to see if he could do a set as a last minute fill-in. Phonte accepted, and then felt inspired to try to get the other two members of Little Brother to join him on stage for an impromptu show. As it turned out, both Big Pooh and 9th Wonder were available and down, and after what Phonte called “the greatest Chinese Fire Drill in history,” they took it to the stage and rocked it.
The next day, Phonte had a cookout at his house, and before it properly began, he and Pooh decided that they were going to make another go as Little Brother. They started working on what would become May The Lord Watch soon afterwards. The group eventually released a cryptic teaser video, then on the morning of August 19th, they announced that they were dropping an album at midnight.
Producer 9th Wonder had decided not to participate in May The Lord Watch, but gave the project his blessing and continues to give the project his endorsement. As a result, the album’s production is handled by a host of producers, many of whom have either worked with Little Brother as a group or one or both of the emcees in some capacity.
The best compliment I can give May The Lord Watch is that it sounds like a quintessential Little Brother album. Both Phonte and Pooh have released many projects outside of Little Brother. However, May The Lord Watch never sounds like solo artists Phonte and Big Pooh teaming up to cash in on nostalgia. Instead, it’s unquestionably another successful collaborative project by the Little Brother unit.
May The Lord Watch also sounds precisely like the Little Brother album that they would have recorded if they had never broken up in the first place. But at the same time, it references and honors the albums that they released earlier in their career. It’s a peak in the genre of “grown man rap.” Now, a little over 15 years after they released their debut album The Listening (2003), both Pooh and Phonte are appreciably better at their craft than when they first got their shine. May The Lord Watch is their strongest album since The Minstrel Show (2005).
The running “theme” of May The Lord Watch is, much like their first two albums, broadcast-based. It’s built around a broadcast day of the fictional UBN (U Black N****s) Network, which they introduced on The Minstrel Show, as the home of the eponymous broadcast. In fact, the album is filled with call-backs to their previous albums, re-introducing such characters and places as Super Producer Roy Lee, Peter Rosenberg (promoted from announcer to Network President), Dunniford Duvall, The Mad Black Daddy, and Percy Miracles (R.I.P.). The connective tissue not only creates clever call-backs, but it also makes the album a genuinely hilarious experience.
The album starts off strong with “The Feel,” produced by longtime Little Brother collaborator Khrysis. Over a pensive piano sample, Pooh and Phonte immediately show that they haven’t missed a step. Phonte contemplates the group’s origins, rapping, “The lost days of my hazy youth, where I paid my dues / And my n****s used to raise the roof / And move units outside of state on some real independent shit / Straight out the trunk like Rae Carruth.” He then likens Little Brother’s reunion to “flexing on an old bike I never forgot how to ride.”
As a whole, May The Lord Watch is a deeply introspective album. Pooh and Phonte dedicate a good chunk of it to explaining their drive to create. They use “Right On Time,” produced by Nottz, to explain their work ethic to grind and push through whatever issues they may face in life. Meanwhile, on the Focus-produced “Good Morning Sunshine,” the pair explain how seeing the sun each morning motivates them to accomplish their goals. “I was taught, men, they really supposed to have no feelings,” Big Pooh raps. “But Lil' Wayne said I shouldn't have no ceilings.”
“Black Magic (Make It Better),” the album’s first single, is one of the few tracks where Little Brother delivers a straight lyrical track. Phonte and Pooh trade a pair of verses over the lush Focus-produced track, with Pooh professing disdain for emcees who brag but can’t back it up, rapping, “These new n****s do a whole lotta back slapping / See you win without they help, then they golf clapping / No applause in my trophy hall / I'm still focused on the goal and not what's hangin’ on the walls.” Phonte also comes extra sharp, vowing to “drop facts over hot wax like Odelay / The killer type on a Thriller night like Ola Ray.”
One of the album’s best songs is “Sittin’ Alone,” produced by Nottz and Phonte, which captures the feelings that go along with living the washed life, or, rather, being too old to go out to the club. First Big Pooh reflects on being bored at home on a weekend, ending up living a little vicariously through his friends on social media, conceding that he misses being on the scene. Phonte then raps about an ill-fated trip to a club as a celebration with his homie, learning to never be fooled by a flier with “eight different color type-faces written on it” and why “after 35, the club’s a different kinda torment.” After deciding he’d rather be watching Flip or Flop, he reminds his fellow washed residents not to fall for Fyre Fest tactics and “before you hang with anybody 25 or less, stay your ass at home and keep it low.”
Black Milk crafts the soulful, thoughtful track for “Picture This,” which showcases the pair at its meditative best, reminiscing about the process of chasing their dreams to get to this point in their career. While Pooh describes his growing love for hip-hop during his childhood and teens, Phonte describes the “Soundbombing for the downtrodden” that he went through, and how he emerged from these trials stronger than before. They end the album with “Work Through Me,” a final battle rap track where Phonte and Pooh pass the mic back and forth like seasoned vets, feeding off of each other’s energy over a bouncy track by Blaaq Gold and Focus. Both demonstrate their dopeness, but Phonte shines again, rapping, “I spit royalty ’cause there's no loyalty / You n****s ride with everybody, rap game Uber pool.”
At 37 minutes, May The Lord Watch is a fairly short album, but it feels complete. Pooh and Phonte make a definitive statement about what brought them back and why they still have a lot to say. Whether or not this is the first step in another act of the pair’s career as a group, or this is just a one-off demonstration of some primo fan service, I’m certainly glad Little Brother decided to share another album. Though I must say, this project feels so natural and right, that I already want more.
Notable Tracks: "Black Magic (Make It Better)" | “Picture This” | "Sittin’ Alone" | “The Feel”