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Little Brother plays it a bit too safe

A pocket of righteous, orthodox hip-hop with innovative beats, nimble rhymes, and intelligent themes has recently grown in Durham, N.C., curated by a musical collective called the Justus League. Saturday night at the Paradise, a cluster of League members supported its flagship act, Little Brother, in a raucous talent show that shed light, perhaps unwittingly, on hip-hop's struggle to redefine itself.

Little Brother seems like the perfect hip-hop act. Clad in baggy denim shorts and supersize white T-shirts over considerable girth, MCs Phonte and Big Pooh worked a classic vocal contrast, one more nasal, the other thicker.

They built on ''conscious" themes drawn from the trials and tribulations of ordinary life. Behind them, DJ Flash mixed the beats of producer 9th Wonder with well-chosen samples of vintage hip-hop and R&B.

Warmed up by the Away Team, another League crew, the crowd -- reasonably mixed for Boston (not all white and collegiate) -- responded enthusiastically. Heads nodded and lips moved to songs, many from ''The Minstrel Show," Little Brother's excellent new album and first major-label release.

As the disc's title suggests, Little Brother has a critique of commercial hip-hop. The group has no patience for gangster and pimp narratives, which it likens to the racist vaudeville of an earlier time. Several times during the set Phonte and Pooh paused to voice this and other critical insights.

But Little Brother's qualities come with limits. The performance was so rigorous that it stuck to basic tenets, with exhortations to ''throw your hands in the air" and ''make some noise." The MCs roamed the stage with authority but offered little in the way of visual refreshment, so that their generously long set actually lapsed into monotony.

Once, a hip-hop show was a total experience, as much fashion showcase and dance lab as musical performance. The look and feel of such acts as Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, or X-Clan were deeply woven into their sounds. That total deployment of personality, no matter how unbridled or eccentric, is what makes the genius of a group like OutKast. Little Brother has done well to depart from today's formulaic sounds, but it has yet to throw caution to the wind.

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