The chorus of Brand Nubian's "Momma" — the most heart-on-its-sleeve, least tortured song about mothers around — is, "You only get one, you only get one, yeah." But many people will make several phone calls this Sunday, and Brand Nubian listeners get three odes to the group members' respective moms in this track from the group's 2004 album, Fire in the Hole. Brand Nubian had been making politically barbed, Native Tongues-inflected hip-hop together and apart for more than a decade before this song — tracks like "Hold On" and "Slow Down." "Momma" takes the ideas in those songs, turns them inward and dresses them down.
The verses tell of three different childhoods, three different ways to say "I love you" — all of them nestled in a schoolyard-simple beat and bass line, swaddled in strings and organ, and watched over by a gentle chorus of grown men who sound a little embarrassed to be singing rather than rapping. Lord Jamar's mom is tender and religious; as an adult, he apologizes for stressing her out. Sadat X's mom is a fierce fashion plate who protected her son from the police; Sadat says he'll be fierce on her behalf. Grand Puba's mom had it tough and was tough on him; grownup Puba thanks her for it.
"Momma" feels homey and handmade, which is the kind of gift moms always say they want, right? The song is soothing, if a little rough around the edges, and it sounds like a real appreciation of three real people, not flowery cursive on Hallmark cards. "Thanks, Mom," Puba says as he takes off his MC hat to speak directly into the mic, "for teaching me left from right, for showing me the proper way." His voice is warm and a little abashed. He, Sadat and Lord Jamar say the right things plainly, which is more than enough to make their mommas proud.