With the release and overwhelming critical acclaim for Phonte’s second solo album No News Is Good News, it’s time that we give some serious consideration to the veteran North Carolina artist as deserving of a seat at the table in the greatest rappers of all-time conversation.
For some, this may sound preposterous considering Phonte hasn't sold a ton of records and he’s never really had any mainstream presence. Because, really, who the f*ck is Phonte? But not every all-time great is a box office smash.
Perhaps the most accurate assessment of Phonte’s rap career was delivered by none other than Phonte himself. Back in 2013, Tiggalo started a thread on Twitter comparing rappers to television shows. The list was remarkably precise and when he mentioned himself, he couldn’t have been more spot-on.
For the uninitiated (a.k.a. the blind, deaf and dumb), Arrested Development is a sitcom that was hailed as a critical success despite low viewership on Fox. The show’s sharp wit and quirky sense of humor helped attract a cult following that was very vocal about the show being one of the funniest sitcoms of all-time and crowded the internet when the plug was pulled on the dysfunctional Bluth family in 2006. After being recognized as the “funniest show of all-time” by IGN in 2011, the show returned in 2013 on Netflix.
Just as Arrested Development is often recognized for influencing a wave of successful sitcoms including 30 Rock and Veep but rarely is mentioned in the same breathe, Phonte helped to usher in a tidal wave of MCs but is often looked over by the masses as the one who fathered their style. For years, Phonte has been recognized by his peers as one of the most talented artists in hip-hop. When he arrived on the scene in 2003 as a member of Little Brother, he immediately raised eyebrows because of his unique ability to combine wit, brutal honesty, confidence, vulnerability and reality into his rhymes. Oh, and he can rap his ass off.
Drake has routinely mentioned Phonte as one of his biggest inspirations and the early portion of the Canadian superstar’s career shadows elements of Phonte’s style, in particular, his ability to shift between rhyming and singing and the injection of humility in his rhymes. The only real difference between the two is that Drake was able to invest Degrassi money into his career while Phonte was rhyming out of a dorm room at North Carolina Central University, likely surviving off of a healthy diet of Top Ramen and water.
You could make the argument that Phonte shouldn’t be mentioned among hip-hop’s all-time greatest MCs because he didn’t influence the art of rhyming like Rakim, The Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac. But that would be a mistake.
Before Phonte, there wasn’t a voice that truly embraced the ups and downs of lower and middle-class Black America. For the most part, MCs have always rhymed their way out of poverty or spit in a rabbit hole of hyperbole and excess. Tiggalo changed all of that, though. His mission was to speak to the everyman (and woman).
As much as 9th Wonder, Phonte’s Little Brother cohort, is responsible for producers utilizing DAW software such as FruityLoops, Phonte is just as responsible for creating a space for rappers to exude confidence despite living just above the poverty line.
"We can't afford Cris', frontin' like we boycott / We on the same page, we all on one accord / Little do they know we all came in one Accord / And them people get sad 'cause they think we should be mad / At all them niggas wit' big money and big chains / But the way I see it, as long as I don't blow / Each and ev'ry year, I'll be the next big thang! / Ten years later, niggas still on the verge / Same gray Nissan sittin on the curb" —Phonte, “Life of the Party” (2007)
Consider this: Little Brother was one of the first acts to use the internet primarily to engage their audience and, in turn, the trio was greeted with critical acclaim that spread beyond the so-called backpacker crowd.
Beyond the music itself, two stories outlined the career narrative of Little Brother. First, 2005’s The Minstrel Show caused a significant amount of controversy at the once-highly respected The Source, when then-Editor-in-Chief Joshua “Fahiym” Ratcliffe stepped down after his 4.5-mic rating was reduced to a 4 by the notorious duo of Dave Mays and Benzino. It was unheard of at the time for an “underground” group to receive that level of acclaim at a major hip-hop publication, especially when it was the major label system who was helping to keep the magazine afloat by buying the majority of their ad space (and, in return, earning the highest-rated albums). For an EIC to step down from his position because he felt that strongly about an album rating should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the project. The second story begins and ends with BET, who refused to play the album’s lead single, “Lovin’ It,” because it was allegedly deemed as “too intelligent.” This only added to the underground legend of Little Brother, covered brilliantly by Phonte on “Boondock Saints.”
"And truth about life and the things I'm dealing with / Black folks saying that I'm too intelligent / And white folks saying I'm a little too niggerish / It got me in a strange predicament / I wish black embarrassment TV was judged more wisely / But I don't know what's worse/ The fact that they ain't playing our shit, or that it don't even surprise me / Because I'm shucking and 'cause I ain't jiving / Some of these crackers won't stand beside me / And 'cause I ain't killing and don't support pimping / Some of these niggas wanna call me a Cosby / Well, I'll be that dude, I'll scratch that itch / I'll play that role, call me Heathcliff bitch / If this ain't what you want then fine / But somehow, someway we got to draw that line / And it goes without mentioning, I thought about censoring / This verse so my label and manager stay cool / But as of this recording we ain't even outsold 'The Listening' / So really what the fuck I got to lose?" —Phonte, "Boondock Saints" (2006)
Much like Black Thought, another underrated candidate for the title of GOAT who is often overlooked because of his work as part of The Roots, Phonte’s candidacy has likely been hindered by the amount of time he’s spent throughout his career as a part of a collective of talented individuals, whether it be as 1/3 of Little Brother or as the lead vocalist of The Foreign Exchange. The fictional GOAT list has consistently put members of a group at a disadvantage (see also: Posdnuos from De La Soul), however, upon further inspection, group work isn’t reason enough to exclude Phonte from the conversation. Consider Tiggalo’s decade-and-a-half in the game includes two acclaimed solo albums, four studio albums with Little Brother, five with the Foreign Exchange, and a handful of stellar mixtapes and guest appearances.
In my book, any argument against Phonte’s qualifications based on his group work was put to rest in 2011, when he struck out on his own and released his solo debut Charity Starts At Home. Over 12 tracks, Phonte tackled the struggles of commitment, the complexities of relationships, and pragmatic realism after seeing a major label opportunity crumble despite critical acclaim.
If nothing else, the one thing Phonte has done better than many of his peers over the past 15 years is growing up and reevaluating the circumstances surrounding his own life. A vast majority of modern-day rappers are frozen in a state of perceived coolness, constantly in a battle with their age no matter how many years have passed. Rather than offering his fans an analysis of his environment, Phonte’s approach is that of an open book.
He may not be the poet laureate in hip-hop like Nas or Rakim, or a lyrical wordsmith like Lupe Fiasco, but unlike all three, Phonte has allowed his age to cater to the quality of his material. He has refused to crater his sensibilities to be in tune with the younger generation and recognized that his success has much to do with his audience’s ability to relate to him.
Although JAY-Z’s 4:44 has been praised for its maturity and being “grown man’s music,” the truth is that infidelity knows no age and isn’t exclusive to 40-year-olds. Not to mention, JAY-Z leaving listeners aspiring to one day be like JAY-Z isn’t exactly a sentiment most over 35 can relate to. On the other hand, Phonte’s No News Is Good News is a sobering reality that truly captures what life is like as a middle-aged rapper—or middle-aged Black men, in general, who don’t make music for a living. That’s the charm of No News Is Good News. “Expensive Genes” alone is worth its weight in gold and serves as one of, if not the only, songs that tackle high blood pressure, sleep apnea and blood sugar levels.
"Seven days in a week / Eat a steak every plate it's a feast / Watch your weight no mistakes in the least / Or else you too will dig a grave with your teeth / I wish I that I could fit in these expensive genes / A waistline that'll rip the seams / And pharmaceuticals that sit between your heart medicine / Cough medicine blood thinners and antihistamines / We got the oceanfront view / But scope is so limited / 'Cause young niggas be dying of old nigga shit / Wifey sleeping in the guest room cause you snore at night / It’s like 40 years old is 3/4 life / Our biggest fears were shots or armed robbery / Now the biggest fears are clots and oncology / Got a sleep app to tell you you got sleep apnea / He all in your sheets with a CPAP / Wish that I could fit in these expensive genes / I don’t like this cut it’s like the Lord got my order wrong / 3 a.m. stress eating laying down on it / Now your blood sugar is borderline Bordelon / Seen 'em rise I seen 'em fall / I’ve seen the dreams of fiends and scenes of war / Inside my mind it ain’t nothin' serene it’s called Blackness / The most expensive gene of all" —Phonte, “Expensive Genes” (2018)
Although younger audiences may not find common ground with the thematic elements found on No News Is Good News, they too will eventually grow old. While the culture is still relatively young, we tend to forget that this is the first time where a three-generation family all grew up with rap music. That hip-hop is finally in a place where we can hear about the life of a middle-aged rapper is in and of itself exciting.
As the torchbearer of this movement, Phonte should be recognized as a pioneer—and as one of the greatest of all time.