Sadness & Reflection: A Soul-Baring Conversation with Phonte

"When you young, you think you know everything and the older you get, you realize you got more questions than you have answers from it."
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Phonte

"A man is not old until his regrets take the place of his dreams." —John Barrymore

Wisdom is the result of deciphering lessons taught only by living life. Life is the original teacher, the world is a classroom in disguise, and death is graduation day for every enrolled scholar. Instead of grades, we gain experience after trials and tests. It's what allows our elders to speak with enlightened tongues and to pass down knowledgeable teachings.

No News Is Good News, Phonte's long-awaited sophomore album and his first solo LP in seven years, is food for the mind; a gift to the young and the old. The ten-track album overflows with soul-easing grooves, wise words, reflective musing, and the mature thoughtfulness of an adult scholar still deciphering all that life continues to teach him.

Phonte’s gift is knowing how to unravel life's Rubix cube. He is a master of articulating nuanced intricacies with poetic simplicity and everyman relatability. Consider the North Carolina emcee a philosopher who doesn’t deliver parables as puzzles, but easily understood paintings.

No News Is Good News is a series of self-portraits you will see yourself in—if not today, then one day soon. We all must grow old and face what awaits around those unknown corners. The beauty of veteran rappers putting their lives on wax is that you get the sour lemons and the sweet lemonade of the lifestyle beyond the 20s and early 30s.

Views of death, health, love, and even your creative career will change as you get older―a new perspective is born viewing the world through aged eyes and filtering thoughts through a wizened mind.

My first interview with Phonte was in 2016. I left our call thinking of him as a human treasure chest. He’s a natural wordsmith; the bars are fluid even in conversation. Gems tumble out when he speaks as if jewels are hidden in the crevices of his canines.

One of my favorites quotes from that conversation continues to stand the test of time:

“Go after your dream but be practical. Don’t get dressed up before you have a date for the prom.”

If Jaden Smith is an icon living, Phonte is a sage rhyming. For a journalist who has interviewed countless artists, the acclaimed wordsmith is the ideal prototype of what writers hope to accomplish when conducting interviews. 

Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, follows.

Yoh: I feel like no one saw No News Is Good News coming. They knew the album was in the making, that it was coming this year, but it came out of left field.

Phonte: Well, brother, that’s because it came outta left field for me as well. I just finished it last Sunday [February 25].

You finished the album and you’re like, "Let's get her mastered and out in the world?"

Yeah, I finished it Sunday. I did the last song that we recorded for the record, “Sweet You.” My engineer Chris Burner, TallBlackGuy and I were sending files back and forth mixing the song. I finished my vocals early that morning. I had been up all night working on it. 

My man Dornik, he sang background vocals on it for me. I hit him up earlier in the day—he’s in the UK—and he’s like, “Yo man, I love the joint, I’ll put some back vocals on it for you.” I sent him the reference. He was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it, as soon as I put my daughter down, I’ll hit you back.” And he’s like six hours ahead of me. Long story short, that was the last song we had done. I finished mixing it maybe, like 5—6 o'clock Sunday evening.

But for you to finish the album, you had to have a vision of what you wanted the completed version to sound like, right?

The first song was “Such Is Life.” That was the first song that I did with my man DJ Cozmos and Zo! That one was in late 2015, and I was like, "You know what? I'ma start this record." And so I started it. 2016 was when we put out the promotional pieces. It was supposed to be Zo!’s album Skybreak, then the Tigallerro album, and then my solo album. I was just gonna bang out all three in a year. 

Then my life just went fucking haywire, everything just kinda went bonkers. That was when The Breaks got picked up. That was when we started doing Questlove Supreme and we me and my lady bought a house. On top of that, my dad and my grandad died in the same week. My grandfather died on a Thursday, my dad died on Sunday and we buried them both on Labor Day 2016. Immediately after, I had to fly out and shoot my scene for The Breaks. Then at the end of 2016, my uncle died on Thanksgiving. 2016 it was just a fucking mess. It was a mess for everybody emotionally cause we lost a lot of people. But yeah, that was 2016.

I can't imagine having such a great year and then having to face death in such rapid succession.

Yeah. My grandfather had been sick for a minute. He was in his 80's, I think. But he had been kinda sick for awhile. We were sad but we were all kinda relieved cause, you know, he had been sick for a minute. But my dad's [death] was totally from health complications. It was diabetes, congestive heart failure, kidneys. Like when you have diabetes, that shit just fucks everything up. It affects your heart, it affects your kidneys, like everything. It all just kinda…..they all this symbiotic relationship that slowly kills you. And so, he died and was 54.

Once I got into the record, I really realized that I didn’t really have a chance to grieve my dad's death like I should have and so there were several moments that I was recording where I was like, "Shit." It hit me. I’m kinda making my way out of it now. Sunday, I turned the record in. I get a call from my uncle on Tuesday and he was like, "YO! I got some news about your aunt. It’s not looking good." So Wednesday, I get the call that my Aunt Donna, who is my dad’s younger sister, died.

I was kinda in this weird space of being excited that people were finally getting the album, people were listening to it and they were liking it, but on the other side, I just wanted to stay in my house and cry. Cause I was having to go through that shit all over again.

Your album is too real. What was your process like for putting all of these experiences into the music?

The process is just…there’s a lot more scrutiny. A lot more writing and rewriting. Sitting on verses. Looking over the session files, the first song I started for the record was actually “Pastor Tigallo,” in June 2014. "Pastor Tigallo" wasn’t wrapped until this January. The last four songs recorded were “Sweet You, “Find That Love,” “Cry No More,” and “Euphorium,” all recorded during the week of February 18. Tall Black Guy and I finished mixing “Sweet You” on February 25. We made it in the nick of time for the release date. The jam with BOSCO & Kaytranada that we recorded that same week as well. That one will probably turn up on his next album. It’s feast or famine bro. No in-between.

An album that you were talking about for almost two years was, essentially, finished in one week.

Once you know where you wanna go, for me, it’s just about being efficient. I’ve never been a person to just do like 20 records and let’s pick 10. If I’m gonna go in, if I’m sittin’ with a song and I don’t think [it works], if I don’t have that faith in it from the beginning, then there's really no need for me to keep going with it. For me, it’s just all about picking the best ideas. What you think are the best ideas and doing those. And that’s kind of where I’ve always worked.

What does rap mean to you in 2018? Not just the art form, but the practice of making music, trying to be a craftsman who can elevate to that next level?

That’s a great question man. I think to me, it has shifted some over the years. I think at the time when I was young, it was more so about, you just wanna kill everything. It’s just like kill kill kill, bar bar bar. At this point in time, you learn to differentiate between something that may make for a great moment but may not make for great music. So for example, the Black Thought 10 minute freestyle, that made for an impeccable moment. It’s like watching this superhuman feat of ability. Watching this guy go breathlessly for 10 minutes with 10 point fuckin’ accuracy, you know? Take these rhymes and spit em’ for 10 minutes straight and put it out as an album, that doesn’t really make for compelling music.

For example, "Such As Life" is a record that I listened to when I first did it, and I was just like "Man, I need to make this more lyrical." And so I did a pass where I was just rappin’ and rappin’. And I was just like, "Nah, I got it right the first time." I captured a moment. Everything about that moment. You record a song, you’re not just recording yourself, you’re recording your voice, you’re recording that room, you’re recording that day, you’re recording what you ate for breakfast that morning that might’ve made your voice sound different, you’re recording the temperature outside that may have affected your voice, you know what I’m saying? There are a million intangibles that could’ve affected that vocal performance.

So yeah, for me in terms of writing rhymes, it’s brutal. I think it’s something that I’m thankful that I make it sound easy, cause I know people say it sounds effortless and I’m appreciative of that, but yeah, the donuts only get made one-way bro. Like I don’t sleep, sometimes I’ll forget to bathe like I’m stuck in a fucking chair. I make myself get up and take walks, or just sit outside on my deck and just get some sunlight. I keep water in the studio. I have to remind myself to drink water. It’s brutal. It’s truly some war of art shit.

So you have to enter a certain space every time?

Yeah, it’s gotta be right. Magic is elusive. Magic is very elusive. And you know when you’ve caught it. But you also know when you ain’t caught it. So those times when you catch it, it’s like, "Oh my god, I caught some magic." It’s like capturing fireflies in a jar or some shit. 

You always have to give yourself room to just stay in that moment and it’s very much like going to the gym. Ninety percent of the battle is getting off the couch and walking to the door. Once you walk to the door, you’re good. And artists are pretty much the same way. Inspiration is never gonna show up before you do. 

You’ve been in the entertainment business for so long, what does success mean to you now?

Success at the point, in 2018, is still having an audience. Still having people willing to listen. I had a cat reach out to me on Twitter and he was like, "Yeah so, I logged into Spotify and I changed my VPN to a foreign country because albums drop earlier in foreign countries so I was able to listen to your album, this shit is dope man, keep bangin'." So 10-15 years ago, the thought of someone “bootlegging” your shit is "Aw that’s fucked up," you’d be feeling mad. And now it’s just like, this dude, in a world where we have 700 channels, Netflix, Hulu, fuckin’ Amazon Prime, and access to damn near every song in recording music, took time out his day to nigga rig his Spotify to listen to my shit. That means a lot. Maybe that’s the new “Going to the record store,” I don’t know!

What is the biggest difference between where you were seven years ago when you released your solo debut versus where you are right now?

I remember when I first did Charity Starts at Home, I played it for a buddy of mine, and my homie out of Chicago and he was like "Damn, this is an angry fuckin’ record, I ain’t know it was gonna be like this, goddamn." I was like "Yo, I’m just rhyming." But that was the first time I think, looking back now, [where] I’m like "Yeah, this is an angry fuckin’ record." It’s just like attack attack attack. There was no release. So with No News, Good News, there’s a little attack but then there’s a release. It’s driven by sadness, grief, but also just an appreciation for the things you do have. And approaching that time in your life where you can possibly have more years behind you than you’ve got in front of you.

Man, I'm shook. You saying that has me shook.

You're a young brother, you got plenty of time. I have plenty of time too, but it’s a thought. You see your parents get older and nobody prepares you for that shit. It’s like my mother, I have to take care of my mother? Like what the fuck do you mean? I was just living with her. So yeah, the big shift was a lot of anger, a lot of attacking, this one is a bit more sadness and a lot more reflection. The tone is not as aggressive as much as it is contemplative. Which I think fits as far as real life, but when you young, you think you know everything and the older you get, you realize you got more questions than you have answers from it.

Transcription by Sara Brown

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