Since Little Brother exploded onto the national scene with The Listening, the group's name has become synonymous with high-quality hip-hop. Together and separately, superproducer 9th Wonder and rappers Big Pooh and Phonte have maintained such a high level of quality control that it's often easier to peruse their projects for songs that wouldn't make terrific singles than for tracks that would. Since The Listening, 9th Wonder has rocketed to the top ranks of hip-hop producers, landing a standout track on Jay-Z's The Black Album, producing all of last year's fantastic MURS 3:16The 9th Edition, and manning the boards for everyone from Kanye West to Jean Grae to Masta Ace. Phonte, meanwhile, stepped out with the North Carolina/Netherlands collaboration Connected, which will hopefully do for European beatsmith Nicolay what The Listening did for 9th Wonder. Now it's time for Big Pooh (billed somewhat redundantly as "Rapper Big Pooh") to go solo, and though his debut, Sleepers, can't boast the compelling backstory of Connected (a stunning transcontinental collaboration between people who'd never met face to face throughout most of its recording), or the star power of 9th Wonder's supporters (including ?uestlove and Jay-Z), it'd be a mistake to sleep on Pooh's tight, filler-free 45-minute debut.
What Sleepers lacks in novelty, it makes up for in good old-fashioned hip-hop fundamentals: dope beats and engaging rhymes. Where Phonte has cultivated an image as a hard-working everyman, Big Pooh is more of a linguistic pugilist, bobbing and weaving through production so glossy it positively shimmers. Sleepers represents Pooh's solo bow, but like Connected, it's not exactly a solitary venture. It showcases the depth, chemistry, and skills of Justus League's B-team: producer Khrysis, rappers Median, O-Dash, and Joe Scudda, and extended-family member Murs, who lends his endearingly vinegary, smart-ass presence to "Now." But Pooh's Little Brother brethren provide the distinctionon tracks like "Every Block" (produced by 9th Wonder and assisted by Phonte), "Strongest Man" (another of the six 9th Wonder productions on the album), and the slinky love song "Between The Lines," the effortless grace makes crafting transcendent chill-out hip-hop sound easy.
It takes nothing away from Big Pooh to note that like nearly all Justus League joints, Sleepers is notable mainly for its production, which continues to connect the dots between Mecca And The Soul Brother-era Pete Rock and the seductive hyper-soul of Roc-A-Fella house producers Just Blaze and Kanye West. Chopping the past into the present, 9th Wonder and kindred spirit Khrysis lace Pooh and his guests with stuttering vocal soul samples and mellow yo-yo rhythms. Picking up where The Listening, Connected, and the Justus League/Little Brother mix-tapes left off, Sleepers offers nothing but more of the same, which qualifies as good news indeed.