(Today's Reader Review comes from Miguel, who took it upon himself to continue that Little Brother series that I seem to have given up on, as he reviews Phonte's solo effort Charity Starts At Home. Leave your thoughts for Miguel below.)
Phonte has had a pretty rough time in the music industry. The stars seemed to align for his trio, North Carolina-based Little Brother (which also featured rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder, who is now an industry go-to), upon their signing to Atlantic Records, but then The Source had a dispute over how to rank their sophomore album, The Minstrel Show, and BET refused to promote the video for the lead single “Lovin’ It,” due to it’s being deemed “too intelligent” for the average BET viewer. Although anything above an actual minstrel show would be too intelligent for the average BET viewer, this move was still pretty fucked up, and it hurt the growing buzz the group had earned on blogs across the Internet.
Little Brother's original lineup soon went defunct, as strains began to form within the crew and 9th Wonder broke away in order to capitalize on his newly-found clout in the music industry. Phonte reacted by taking his destiny into his own hands, booking cameo appearances, recording two more Little Brother albums without 9th (the brilliant Getback and the merely average Leftback), and forming the The Foreign Exchange with producer Nicolay, with whom he released the critically-acclaimed Connected and two additional R&B albums (Leave It All Behind and Authenticity).
But now Phonte, whose middle-class tales inspired Kanye West and whose ability to mix R&B and hip hop inspired Drake (who, instead of giving him a damn feature already, constantly name-drops the man as an influence in an attempt to gain some underground credibility even though his chance has long since passed), has finally decided to release his debut solo album, Charity Starts at Home, with the help of a familiar face: rekindling his friendship with 9th Wonder resulted in the two collaborating on four tracks. Weirdly, Nicolay is nowhere to be found, and anyone who expected a Big Pooh guest feature should stop getting their hopes up, as they will only be dashed time and again: as Phonte repeatedly confirms, there will never be a Little Brother reunion.
Who cares about all of this long-winded exposition, though, if the project isn’t any good? Let’s finally get started.
1. DANCE IN THE REIGN (FEAT. SY SMITH)
Swiff D provides a celebratory instrumental for Phonte to talk his shit over. He opens by claiming that he “does this all for hip-hop” before saying “I’m lying like shit, I do this shit to pay my goddamn mortgage, my bills, who the fuck am I fooling?”, which perfectly sums up Phonte’s attitude for any newer listeners out there. When he begins to spit, he sounds energized, almost as though he had spent his past few years (mostly) as an R&B singer saving up rhymes to use upon his eventual return. Nice.
2. THE GOOD FIGHT
9th Wonder’s first production contribution features a contract between a smooth melody and some heavy drums (by 9th’s standards, anyway). Phonte spits about the hard-working middle class he has always (rightfully) viewed as his target demographic. His last bar, “How the fuck do you sell out if ain’t nobody selling?”, resonates in today’s economic situation: take notes on how you relate to your audience, Jay and 'Ye.
3. EVERYTHING IS FALLING DOWN (FEAT. JEANNE JOLLY)
Justus League member Khrysis, who is known for his production work for, unsurprisingly, Little Brother, provides a narcoleptic instrumental complete with an interchangeable R&B hook by Jeanne Jolly. Phonte sounds complacently up to par, spitting bars on autopilot such as, “Tay rock the spot like I am half leopard”. The honeymoon period had to end eventually, I suppose.
4. NOT HERE ANYMORE (FEAT. ELZHI)
The last time these two collaborated was on The Minstrel Show’s “Hiding Place”, and just like on that earlier track, both artists do well enough at braggadocio without outshining each other (although Elzhi’s first bar sounded awkward as fuck, he quickly adjusts and delivers). The instrumental, courtesy of 9th Wonder, doesn’t add much, nor does it take much away, but I have to mention that these tracks are all beginning to sound far too similar to each other.
5. ETERNALLY (FEAT. MEDIAN)
Seamlessly transitioning from “Not Here Anymore”, this 9th Wonder beat has a bit more hair on its chest. Justus League member Median goes back and forth with Phonte and is able to just hold his own. The hook is shit, but in this genre you are already programmed to assume that.
6. SENDIN’ MY LOVE
Consistency is usually unheard of on a hip hop release, but in the case of Charity Starts At Home, that same trait is actually hindering the project, as Stro Elliot’s instrumental, while a bit more flamenco-influenced, continues the trend of relaxed, R&B friendly music (complete with an uncredited female singing the hook) that puts me right to sleep. The outro, which I assume is comedian Affion Crockett’s contribution (he's in the liner notes, anyway) is pretty hilarious, though.
7. BALL AND CHAIN
Of course the heaviest instrumental thus far opens up a song where Phonte embraces his R&B side. What the fuck? Swiff D, who also produced “Dance In The Reign”, puts together a brilliant piece for Tigallo to first sing and then, eventually, spit over.
8. TO BE YOURS
Only clocking in at one minute and thirty-two seconds, “To Be Yours” functions well as an interlude, with Phonte singing a pleasant tune that would not sound out of place in your local lounge. That’s all I have to say about that.
9. GONNA BE A BEAUTIFUL NIGHT (FEAT. CARLITTA DURAND)
Whoever set the sequence for Charity Starts At Home should be shot. Wouldn't it make much more sense to mix the hip hop and R&B songs together on the tracklisting, so as not to bore the listener? Is that just me? Nothing on this track is objectionable, but that may be because I cannot remember anything about it.
10. WE GO OFF (FEAT. PHAROAHE MONCH)
Phonte and the Pharoahe collaborate on their second track of the year (after “Black Hand Side”, off of Monch’s W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)) and decide to abandon any notions of a concept in exchange for straight spitting. A great track.
11. THE LIFE OF KINGS (FEAT. EVIDENCE & BIG K.R.I.T.)
9th Wonder provides his final instrumental of the project, which, like most of the others, is merely average (although I enjoyed the D.M.C. vocal sample a great deal). Evidence sounds a bit out of place, but Big K.R.I.T. and Tay do their thing, contributing to this track being an overall success.
12. WHO LOVES YOU MORE (FEAT. ERIC ROBERSON)
Matching the celebratory tone from the first track, the beat (courtesy of E. Jones) is just good enough to overcome a dull hook (courtesy of guest star Eric Roberson.) Phonte returns to spitting about society's ills, and his last verse in particular impresses, as the beat strips down so as to emphasize his words. The little spoken word outro was a nice touch, too (although I would not be surprised if Max felt “meh” about it.) And with that, we are done.
THE LAST WORD: Phonte's Charity Starts At Home had no real shot commercially, due to its being released on the same day as both J. Cole’s (mediocre) debut and 9th Wonder’s latest album. That's a shame, as it is pretty good. The consistency, oddly, hinders it from becoming anything more than that, though, as Phonte knows his lane and chooses to stay in it, taking zero creative risks. It's hard to say where this project falls in the man’s canon, but when the biggest criticism you can give to an album is that it is too consistent, then there is no reason to really complain. I would recommend picking this up, especially since Phonte claims to need the sales to help pay his mortgage. Charity Starts At Home is almost unobjectionable enough to play around your grandparents and children, and Phonte definitely put quite a bit of work in here. I recommend you not try to listen to it all in one sitting, though, as the album works best in pieces rather than as a cohesive whole (unless your aim is to fall asleep, in which case, have at it).
(Questions, comments, and the like go below.)