The Minstrel Show
rtists, fans, and scholars still work to get a grip on minstrelsy. While academics debate the racism and the subversion, the degradation and the co-optation, artists present ways that the tradition is alive and well in the US. Public Enemy famously called out Elvis Presley in a lyrical barb that was more aggressive than considered; Michelle Shocked tried to advertise her own (and pop's) use of black musical tradition with the cover of Arkansas Traveler but was blocked by her label. Spike Lee's Bamboozled offered an ambitious but lost take on the topic. Underground rappers Little Brother get after it on their major label debut, a concept album called The Minstrel Show.
Little Brother—comprised of MCs Phonte and Big Pooh and hot producer 9th Wonder—start with a basic idea: contemporary hip-hop, with its guns and bling, has become its own minstrel show, presenting white consumers with the stereotypes of black people that they enjoy being entertained by. To present and examine this idea, the group sets their album in the world of television station UBN (for U Black Niggers) and presents song parodies that come from the station, skits surrounding the life and music of its viewers, and tracks that look at the minstrel state of hip-hop.
The trio's idea is easily explained (and hardly original), but it's up to their presentation to make it take hold and have significance. Rather than trying to redefine the boundaries of hip hop, the group, especially 9th Wonder, looks backward. Over an old-school sound (seriously, the references to De La and Tribe are going to get so tired so fast in Little Brother reviews—that's why I didn't make one), the band presents smart rhymes. Unfortunately, they don't have enough to say or enough power to say it with.
The key idea can be summed up with one line from "Say It Again": "I love hip hop, I just hate the niggers in it." It's a strong callout to the hip-hop community, but there's just not enough here to back it up with. The lyrics are intelligent, but both MC's have a casual and repetitious flow that belies that anger that must underlie the themes. If the stars of your musical world are bringing down the place, shouldn't you let yourself be a little pissed? If you are hating people, should you wake up your voice a little? This album needs the rage of a Chuck D (or even the energy of a Flava Flav). The album closes with a performer being censored by the television station for trying to express his real feelings about working for UBN. The shouts that begin here are what the album needs throughout (although the group deserves credit for closing the album with a comment of the media's suppression of voices of dissent).
With 9th Wonder providing solid but unexciting beats and the rappers using an undeviating bop, it's hard to stay tuned in to the Show. Keeping focus does pay off, especially when the MCs serve as examples rather than didacts. On "All For You," Phonte admits to trouble being a father, and forgives his own dad for having the same failings. In the middle of a smart and moving verse, he nails the relationship between personal existence and society pressures in the construction of modern blackface: "I know a lot of people want be to fail as a father, and the thought of that haunts me." In that sentence, he reveals the way culture shapes experience, and also the way that the knowledge of that trap creates an additional mental and emotional weight.
On "Cheatin'" Phonte performs as Percy Miracles, creating a parody of contemporary R&B.; Through both humorous lyrics and accurate performance, the band elicits laughs ("The background singers just messed up / Well, Percy, I don't give a fuck") while critiquing slow jams. In the skit "Diary of a Mad Black Daddy," the group implicitly responds to Kanye West's rejection of academia, as the parent here shouts about his kid listening to music instead of doing his math homework.
The Minstrel Show contains smooth, pleasing hip-hop, but that's exactly not what Little Brother needs to get their point across. With the emotion lacking, they could turn to lyrical content, but the songs, while individually smart, lack intellectual rigor and precision. The group's got an article-length idea and they've tried to stretch it into a book without expanding the possible content. The concept could have turned into a killer, biting album, but instead it drifts around as a loose vision of an important statement. Apparently it hasn't gotten an easier to meditate on minstrelsy.