Little Brother are proving themselves to be one of the underground’s great success stories. I’m not talking necessarily about record sales or the fact that they leveraged the overwhelmingly strong reception for The Listening into a major label deal with Atlantic (we’ll see how that actually turns out in reality – the transition from underground to major label for indie stars – think Common, Talib Kweli, Mystic etc – is a topic for an essay in itself), but more about the consistent quality of their output. Oftentimes the ‘underground’ and its stars are celebrated by default more for what it isn’t (i.e. not mainstream) than what it is (in reality, sometimes inconsistent, of uneven quality and disorganized). But Little Brother’s The Listening was rightly hailed for its distinct, if not groundbreaking sound (which placed 9th Wonder on many an artist’s wish list, mainstream and indie alike) and the lyrical abilities of its MCs. Not content to stop there, each member has proven himself individually (something Wu-Tang and others failed miserably at) as well. Phonte’s collaboration with producer Nicolay on the Foreign Exchange album Connected was near flawless and word is that 9th Wonder’s album will follow suit.
Sleepers presents more of what you liked about Little Brother, without coming off as a lesser imitation. The production style, which is handled for the most part by 9th Wonder and Khrysis, maintains a similarly soulful and melodic boom-bap sound. But what Big Pooh brings to Sleepers is a more intimate look inside his mind and life that gives the album lasting appeal. He indulges in some braggadocio “I Don’t Care” but also lets us know he is one of the hardest working MCS around. On “Every Block” (also featuring Phonte) he states: “if you see me in the lab with a pen and a pad, I’m tryin to write a verse that’s doper than my last…Some niggas think about sex, I think about checks…So if you see me in the streets and my eyes look red is probably cos I ain’t been able to sleep..” He acknowledges the grind and the hardships of life throughout the album, but on tracks like “Scars” and “Live Life” he ultimately comes off as optimistic and determined to succeed. His words hold weight as he outlines his own trials and tribulations that fuel his drive to overcome: “this world is a fucked up place so we can watch it from behind iron bars or under the stars…..live life to the fullest, whoever you are, wherever you are.” He mixes up the subject material by addressing matters of the heart in his typically matter-of-fact style on “Friends” and “Between The Lines.”
Despite its release early in the ‘05, Sleepers is bound to be a contender for the ‘best of’ year-end lists. It provides a compelling listen musically and lyrically, helped in no small part by Pooh’s abundant charisma. When any crew member does a solo project, the (often valid) concern is that he’ll show himself to be an under developed artist in his own right. Sleepers makes such worries irrelevant as Big Pooh demonstrates all the depth and maturity needed to make a fulfilling solo album.