If you're going to rap, you better know how to boast. In the earliest days, Chief Rocker Busy Bee talked about being "badder than bold, bolder than bad." Now every rapper does it, whether it's a megastar like Jay-Z gushing about private jets and Audemars Piguets (a very expensive watch that maybe you've never heard of) or some fresh-faced kid getting love from indie rock blogs by claiming he's got next. Lasting emcees have almost always been defined by how well they could employ hyperbole, claim the throne and be the best, if only by their own criteria.
But what about when most of the rap world has acknowledged that you're not actually the best, claiming that in a group of three, you're really the third wheel? And how about when the other pieces in that group move on to bigger things, like running labels or being nominated for Grammys, leaving you behind to still prove your mettle as a rapper to folks who have never taken you very seriously? You, of course, get back in the studio, claim you're the greatest and press on anyway.
This is the case for Rapper Big Pooh, the oft-overlooked or altogether dismissed member of Little Brother who hasn't enjoyed the post-trio success of rapper and singer Phonte Coleman or producer 9th Wonder. But that hasn't stopped him from claims of his own strength. On last year's Fat Boy Fresh Vol. 1 mixtape, for instance, Pooh raps, "I adjust to any circumstance/ handle my affairs/ shake the hatred off, show 'em I don't really care/ No we don't compare/ I'm on another stair/ case in point, you ain't fuckin' with my last year."
It's a thrilling sequence that keys on a great pun and a well-developed sense of recalcitrance. On last year's LP Dirty Pretty Things, Pooh again sounded substantially more assertive and potent than he was during his formative years with his former group. As he puts it, he might be a bit more pushy in his delivery these days; he has to find a way to help get "critics and assholes" off his back and onto his rhymes.
Indeed, Pooh, now 32, has transformed into a rapper more remarkable than anyone ever imagined during the salad days of Little Brother. His ear for choosing production has widened from heavily sampled boom-bap to a more vengeful and aggressive range that he describes as "slap music." That term reaffirms the themes of grandiosity and fierceness ingrained in rap taunts—the dominant rapper knocking down the weakling. As he says, he's just responding to naysayers, who, for some reason, think that he'll never be able to top anything he's done post-Little Brother. In some sense, too, he's compensating for a lost career, shattered by an unthinkable breakup that left him in the position of having to outfox his sense of inferiority.
Honestly, Pooh's apathy on those treasured Fat Boy Fresh lines is kind of a front. Pooh cares very much about his reputation—so much so, in fact, that he's just rereleased Sleepers, the solo album he made during Little Brother's prime. Whatever it was that happened in Pooh's "last year," it likely didn't match Little Brother's numbers or buzz. He wants to remind an audience, which he hopes continues to grow, not only that he's been around awhile but that, against the fallout of Little Brother's tumultuous end, he's gotten better. He wants to build a future by tapping into the good old days.
"I finally understand why, no matter what I do, nothing will sound better than Sleepers, because it represents a moment in time. People were discovering Little Brother for the first time. We were all getting along. The sound was the same, and the album was an extension of that sound," Pooh explained last week from his home in Charlotte. He'd just returned from a tour date in Vancouver. "Now, it's difficult to accept other things after that. But every project I do is better. It doesn't work the same way for fans. They want to feel what they used to feel. That's impossible for me."
The rerelease of Sleepers will precede an EP that includes seven never-before-heard tracks, all produced by 9th Wonder, his sidekick Khrysis and Little Brother's former manager, Big Dho. In 2005, when Sleepers was initially released, Pooh passed on the opportunity to push the album as heavily as he would have liked in order to devote more time to Little Brother. Aside from a week of promotional appearances in New York around its release date, Sleepers mostly went unnoticed. When Little Brother collapsed, Pooh's fallback solo plan was a weak one. He hadn't taken care to build those other outlets. Now he's having to make up for that lost time, doing one-off dates and girding himself for rap relevance while watching from the sidelines as 9th Wonder and Phonte tour the country together, promoting their own solo endeavors.
"I would feel weird as a fan," he says of those duo tours. "I would want to see all three members, but unfortunately that's not how the situation worked out. There was an opportunity presented to me, but it came with an ultimatum. I don't do ultimatums. I'm a grown-ass man."
Sometimes being "a grown-ass man" means showing confidence, and sometimes that kind of confidence or machismo leads to the kind of self-aggrandizement found on Dirty Pretty Things' self-explanatory "Money Getter." On "Around the World," Pooh claims he's a first-class Casanova who gets around. He's actually a married dude who lives in Charlotte and tweets a lot about sports and publicly offers to record guest verses. Not the greatest, not the richest, not the best, but if Pooh doesn't compliment himself, who will?
On Saturday, Pooh will perform in a Triangle club for the first time since Little Brother's farewell show in Carrboro in September 2010. He'll headline, while Raleigh's rising-star rapper King Mez will open. Mez is currently finishing his debut LP, My Everlasting Zeal. Sans modesty, Mez says that North Carolina's biggest hip-hop stars, like Phonte Coleman and J. Cole, have heard the album and approved. So, yes, Mez is prone to boast, too, something that he calls the act of "over-accommodating."
Mez isn't specifically referring to Pooh's situation with the term, but in the short time that he's been on the hip-hop scene, he's noticed his fellow rappers' tendency toward entitlement (and not necessarily shied from it himself). Pooh's own over-accommodating seems more a rap instinct than a false representation of his hip-hop status. No matter what, he has to sell himself, even if doing so suggests delusions of adequacy or even grandeur.
When Mez, the zealous rap apprentice, and Pooh, the experienced kingfish, share the Local 506 stage, you might wonder if you're witnessing a generational shift. More likely, Pooh is using it as a show of proof that there's still mileage left in his career. It'd be hard to get any one room full of rap aficionados to tell you exactly how or why, which is why Pooh has to brag and rhyme until he finally makes the point himself.
Pooh still thinks of himself as an ongoing success story, even though he knows that he has a long way to go before he returns to wider rap relevance, let alone lands as an elite rapper. For now, he's finishing the second installment of his Fat Boy Fresh mixtape series and still trying to move past the messy disassociation from his former Little Brother bandmates. "I'm like a cornerback," says Pooh, in true sportsmanlike fashion. "I forget quickly."
That is, he's moving on to the next play, rapping like he's never been beaten.
This article appeared in print with the headline "King me."