mikeboogielilbrother.jpgLittle Brother’s new mixtape, And Justus for All, marks a milestone in the North Carolina collective’s career. It’s the first release since producer 9th Wonder left the fold and they departed from Atlantic Records. With the status of the group up in the air, remaining members Phonte and Big Pooh look to re-establish their identity on this mixtape A&Red and arranged by Cleveland DJ Mick Boogie. Thankfully, the lyrical tandem shows some much needed diversity in their sound and subject matter, dispelling the notion that 9th was the backbone of the group.

And Justus for All’s varied content is a welcome change from LB’s 2005 sophomore album, The Minstrel Show, which was, at times, self-applauding. The “Life of the Party (Remix)” finds a humble Pooh admitting the duo’s SoundScan struggles (“Release date came, then the album flopped/A stale piece of gum would have had more pop”). That self-proclamation of failure is then mended on the radio-friendly “Delusional,” thanks to its neo-soul chorus and the duo’s celebration of spirited women.

The group digs deeper over the Kickdrums’ souled-out score for “Never Leave,” as Phonte draws parallels between hip-hop’s obsession with crack and the furor over Krispy Kreme donuts. ’Te then tops himself on “Last Day”—which borrows the sordid beat from Onyx’s “Last Dayz”—as he reminisces about working at a department store and the shopping habits of different races.

Still, life without 9th Wonder may worry some Little Brother fans. Although cuts like “Rise and Fall” and “One Eleven” make the tape drag at times, And Justus for All highlights the duo’s creativity and workingman’s appeal. It also proves Phonte and Big Pooh are still in their artistic prime and motivated to keep the music coming, with or without a deal. —BILL HEINZELMAN