At their core, Little Brother's The Minstrel Show and Kanye West's Late Registration are both about coming of age emotionally and creatively, about realizing all those childhood dreams hatched while watching Yo! MTV Raps, yet realizing that the fight has only just begun. The albums share a hyper-soulful sound and aesthetic that marries pop's gleaming surfaces and giant hooks with the depth, complexity, and substance of art. Yet the two acts' similar goals and sensibilities drive them in opposite directions on their eagerly anticipated sophomore albums. West's Late Registration is a sloppy, inspired mess that tries to cram several albums worth of ideas into one overstuffed opus, while Little Brother's cohesive Minstrel Show boasts an almost surgical focus, from its bravura between-song transitions to its stellar sequencing.
While 9th Wonder's Minstrel Show beats aren't quite as lush or cinematic as the ones on The Listening, he's stripped his sound down to a glittering, elegant perfection. Where Little Brother's acclaimed debut was rooted in a near-obsessive reverence for hip-hop's past, Minstrel Show finds the group evolving far beyond mere homage. Though a certain beloved Tribe Called Quest hook reappears late in the album, The Listening's karaoke-style tributes have been replaced by a ferocious engagement with the present. In some cases, this means an overarching critique of the shrill, reductive, insulting take on black culture characterized both by BET's booty-shaking ethos and UPN's new-school minstrelry. Alternately, the album emphasizes the harsh realities of making it in the rap world. West may try to give listeners the impression that he lives like James Bond, but Phonte is quick to point out that he's still driving a Nissan and hated on in his own hometown. On songs like "Sincerely Yours," Big Pooh lets his battle-rap façade down to expound movingly on his insecurities as an artist and man, while "All For You" explores the myriad messy ways families fall apart in spite of good intentions.
But Minstrel Show isn't all moody introspection. "Beautiful Morning" opens the album on an appropriately ecstatic note, while "Cheatin'" is a parody of a convoluted R. Kelly/Ron Isley story-song so dead-on and note-perfect it could easily pass for the embattled Pied Piper of R&B's newest single. On his debut, West claimed that those "hungry for the vibe of A Tribe Called Quest" now only had this "kid called West." On the major-label front, they now also have Little Brother's Big Pooh, 9th Wonder, and Phonte.