In the reasonably notable absence of the classic line-up of North Carolina hip-hop trio Little Brother, we’ve been fortunate enough to hear from the individual parts; frontman Phonte made waves as one half of the critically-acclaimed Foreign Exchange, and producer 9th Wonder’s been nothing short of prolific behind the boards. And, of course, there’s Big Pooh, who’s been… well, Pooh’s been doing something, probably. There were even a couple of 9th-less Little Brother albums that totally don’t count because they’re 9th-less.

Little Brother was always a simple proposition, easy to get behind: soulful beats, on-point rhymes, enjoy your new record thanks. And now that Phonte and 9th Wonder have dropped parallel records, the word is in for LB fans everywhere: that’s exactly the aesthetic that the two former groupmates are pushing in solo form. Phonte’s Charity Starts At Home and 9th’s The Wonder Years both hit the streets on the same day, but does one overshadow the other, or are they flipsides to the same coin?

If you’ve been following Phonte all these years, you’ve witnessed his career trajectory; once a dexterous, witty emcee, the past two Foreign Exchange albums have found him more concerned with singing. And, yeah, Phonte can blow; he’s no Cee-Lo in the mic rippers-turned-soul men arena, but he’s no Lil’ Wayne, either. Still, it can be disheartening to hear a favorite emcee abandon rhyming altogether – even the aforementioned ‘Lo, who is a welcome and virtuosic singer, but for whom a brief return to spitting would disappoint no one – and Phonte’s long been overdue for a return to the mic.  And, fortunately, his solo debut answers the charge – opener “Dance in the Reign” finds Tay exclaiming over an insidious head-nodder “I do this all for hip-hop!” Of course, he pauses, and remarks, “I’m lyin’ like shit, I do this for my mortgage.” Warm synths and looped soul vocals wrap around the rejuvenated emcee’s layered rhyme schemes. “Go back to the mothership and tell ’em I’m on that separate excrement, yeah, that other shit,” Tay spits, amused with his own wordplay. It’s just one of many quotables scattered throughout Charity, and it’s clear that, if only for twelve glorious tracks, the Phonte of yore is back.

And for the most part, that’s true. Phonte finds it difficult to avoid exercising his smooth, John Legend-y tenor, of course, and dabbles in laconic lounge-jazz on “To Be Yours” and old-fashioned satin-sheets balladry on “Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”. It diversifies the album’s sound a bit; Charity is, by and large, a series of grandiose, soul-spackled Blueprint beats with Tay’s witty wordplay scattered on top. It’s terrific, but there’s not a ton of sonic diversity on display, so Tay’s allowed a track or two to croon. And it’s nice to hear guests stop by to spice up the proceedings; Pharoahe Monch contributes a wonderfully old-school Pharoahe Monch verse to “We Go Off” (you know, the kind where Pharoahe totally approaches the beat according to his own rules, instead of flowing in any sort of discernibly obvious pattern), and recent “it” boy Big K.R.I.T. caps “The Life of Kings” off nicely.

All told, the only thing to really dislike about Charity Starts At Home is Tay’s annoying way of announcing his presence on the mic; the man of more nicknames than Jay-Z lands on his “Tiggalo” alias and sticks with it, introducing every track with “new Tiggalo, new Tiggalo, new Tiggalo.” Which begs the question, where was Tiggalo when Under Construction came out and everyone was tired of Missy Elliott one-time exclusives? But that’s grasping at straws, for Phonte’s first solo joint is truly an immaculately constructed hip-hop record, beats and rhymes distilled down to their purest form, and delivered with proficiency.

By contrast, 9th Wonder’s record initially doesn’t sound as great. The Wonder Years, as any good producer-helmed record should, boasts an impressive cast of hip-hop and r&b luminaries; the problem, at least initially, is that nobody really brings it in the booth like the effortlessly quotable Tay. Generally speaking, The Wonder Years is just as basic a collection of beats and rhymes as Charity Starts At Home, but the verses are a series of perfunctory, perfectly acceptable but unremarkable guest appearances. It’s nice to hear Warren G on “Enjoy”, and Masta Killa totally not doing the Masta Killa thing on “Loyalty”; many of the younger cats just fade into the background, although Talib fires off his most charming, amicable verse in years on “Never Stop Loving You” and rappers Blu and Sundown trade insanely infectious hooks on “Piranhas”.

Which all sounds like damning with faint praise, but 9th’s record is just that – it’s 9th’s record, and if the rhymes take a backseat to a series of groovy, impeccably soulful beats, it’s just highlighting the attributes of a master producer getting back to basics. 9th even takes the mic sporadically, and as a rapper/producer he’s no Black Milk or even a Kanye, but hearing him wax enthusiastically about his slow bloom into an in-demand producer is as charming as it is agreeably clunky. And 9th has something Phonte doesn’t – namely, professional, full-time singers on hand to bring some indelibly infectious hip-hop soul to the proceedings. This is where The Wonder Years really pops – Marsha Ambrosius’ stellar lead on the doe-eyed and romantic “Peanut Butter and Jelly” recalls the halcyon days of young and hungry Mary J. Blige, and “Now I’m Being Cool” makes a definitive bid for infectious throwback jam of the year.

Stacked side-by-side, Charity Starts At Home is the more immediate record – reliable, panoramic beats and Phonte at his hungriest in years; but The Wonder Years is such a fun, terrific-sounding record that it may yield more replay value down the road. Either way, the LB boys are back in business, and their myriad side projects may have established them as killer entities on their own, but their solo projects find them in fine form and more than capable of holding things down on their own. But don’t discount the magic that unravels when the former compadres get the old band back together – when Phonte drops by 9th’s album on “Band Practice”, it’s a wonderfully nostalgic exercise. An old-school soul sample, a crisp boom-bap, and then Phonte:

“New Tiggalo new Tiggalo new Tiggalo.”

Sigh. At least the music sounds good.

Grade, Charity Starts At Home: A
Grade, The Wonder Years: A-


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