Phonte only speaks when he has something to say.
He’s been your favorite rapper’s favorite lyricist since the early 2000s, when, alongside 9th Wonder and Rapper Big Pooh, he was holding hip-hop’s feet to the fire as Little Brother, but the life of an elder statesman never comes easy.
In the seven years since his 2011 solo debut Charity Starts At Home, he’s laid his father to rest and weathered a divorce, but he's also remarried and kept his pen sharp with the occasional rap feature and grown-and-sexy soul bops with both Eric Roberson (as Tigallero) and Dutch producer Nicolay (as The Foreign Exchange).
Put another way, Phonte’s done a lot of living lately, the kind necessary to fuel an album as heartfelt and raw as his long-awaited sophomore project, No News Is Good News.
The cover says it all: Phonte crouched over his phone on a stairwell, buried in a somber tweet while light reflects off his chin. The chaotic outside world stops as soon as your social media feed does, and for a rapper who gets harassed about new music almost as much as Earl Sweatshirt or Jay Electronica, time away gave Phonte more perspective.
"Y’all scoring a game that I don’t care about / 'Cause if you ain’t droppin' that cheap, weakened shit / Every week and shit then they wonder 'bout your whereabouts / I will clothesline a nigga and air it out / 'Cause time is precious and my peace of mind is paramount," he concedes on the ruthless “So Help Me God,” the epitome of “fuck from ‘round me” rap that ends with a silver lining: “You are only as old as your ability to process information.”
That peace of mind is delivered through a series of hard looks in the mirror. Concerns over the health of Black men following the deaths of Combat Jack and Prodigy on “Expensive Genes” flows seamlessly into the family reckoning on “Cry No More,” while Phonte and Freddie Gibbs finding love in hopeless places on the bouncy “Change of Mind” leads to "Sweet You," an ode to happily washed married life.
Phonte’s flow collapses keen insights on middle-aged life alongside X-Men and Breaking Bad references like a tie-dyed velvet origami swan. Production on the album is handled expertly by Marco Polo, Illingsworth, Nottz, and others, all of whom manage to keep pace while mapping out Te’s emotions just as much as the raps do.
As an early 20-something, I had a hard time relating to the more mature aspects of Phonte’s earlier work, but the best parts of Charity Starts At Home now make more sense as I creep closer to 30. In just the past six months, Big K.R.I.T., Evidence, Skyzoo, and Rapsody have contributed to the glut of grown person’s rap, but Phonte's 33-minute emotional journey isn't just another coin in the slot. On No News Is Good News, Phonte's voice continually cuts through the pains and panic of middle age, with candidness, humor, and wisdom.
Three Standout Tracks:
“So Help Me God”
For anyone wondering where rapping Phonte went, this is the kick in the door you’ve been waiting for. Marco Polo composed a fight entrance song for the ages with piano chord stabs and fuzzy drums that serve as Phonte's gunpowder. “This is not a game nigga we are not in Contra / I'ma kill shit I'ma be a silent monster / That will shit to happen like he Tio Salamanca.” These are “out for blood” bars.
“Cry No More”
The lead-in to a doctor asking Phonte about his family's health history at the end of “Expensive Genes.” He tackles the hypocrisy of burying his father “then eating the same shit that killed him” and pleads for parents and their children to try and understand each other better over Illingsworth’s synths and twinkling keys. Continuing to watch my father struggle with sleep apnea almost forced tears.
“Change of Mind” ft. Freddie Gibbs
The only song with no Phonte raps and yet another showcase for Gibbs’ rap gymnastics. Both of their perspectives on how love led them through extremely tough times—Gibbs’ support system after his acquittal in Austria was amazing—add weight to an otherwise two-step-ready beat that shimmers like a diamond. Phonte's beat selections often sound like they’re tailor-made for the most expensive video Mary J. Blige never made, and AbJo of Soulection is here to carry on tradition.