September 13, 2005. The Minstrel Show represented a coming out for Little Brother, the North Carolina trio of 9th Wonder, Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte, even if political wrangling at The Source and BET stifled the album’s national promotion, and threatened to mute what many considered an instant hip-hop classic. That’s not to absolve the Southern group, as Little Brother’s parody of popular black culture certainly didn’t help their case. “Guess they wasn’t ready for the real on the reel,” Pooh quipped on “Curtain Call” from last year’s Leftback, Little Brother’s final album. Since then, the three men have endured a battery of changes. They disbanded. Then there was the very public dispute over the use of a single, with Phonte and Pooh on one side, and 9th Wonder on the other. The three eventually reconciled, although their Little Brother days were clearly behind them.
More than six years removed from that seminal L.B. recording, and Charity Starts At Home is a coming out of sorts for Phonte, known these days as the vocalist of The Foreign Exchange, which doesn’t weave much rapping into its airy concoction of electro-soul music. Still, Phonte’s proven this past year that he hasn’t lost the propensity for witty wordplay and rich humor, trading bars with some of hip-hop’s most respected luminaries. Maybe that’s why Charity feels like another notch on Phonte’s creative belt, a celebratory and triumphant debut for an artist who’s already spent 10 years in the industry. But while other MCs might dump everything into their respective debuts, Phonte takes a lean approach, merging his raw Little Brother aesthetic with the smoother Foreign Exchange sound, resulting in a streamlined recording that leapfrogs between two distinct worlds — complex lyrical compositions for hip-hop enthusiasts and mature ballads for grown-ups. This is sophisticated music for the adult soul.
Those who follow Phonte’s music can certainly attest to his reliance on real-life scenarios, comical or otherwise. It’s a trait that typifies the MC, as he’s never been afraid to hold up the mirror to himself or the listening public. To that end, it’s more of the same on Charity, which details the recession’s effects on dream chasing and the day-to-day struggles of relationships, among other things. Practically speaking, the album is a hotbed of word wizardry, from the back-and-forth dynamic of “We Go Off,” featuring Pharoahe Monch, to the brutal honesty of “The Good Fight.” Here, Phonte raps: “Go and live out your dreams, that’s what they tellin’/ Fam all day in my ear and they yellin’/ ‘Keep it real ‘Te and don’t ever sell out’, but how the fuck you sell out when ain’t nobody sellin’.” Indeed, the music business is in shambles.
Elsewhere, Phonte pits a night on the town against going home to the wife (“Sendin My Love”), weighs the pros and cons of said relationship (“Ball And Chain”), and gets musically romantic with Carlitta Durand (“Gonna Be A Beautiful Night.”) Through the years, one could hear Phonte growing up on record. With The Listening, he and Pooh were young and energetic, throwing everything they had into a varied collection of soul-drenched instrumentals, mocking groupies and incense-burning MCs along the way. The aforementioned Minstrel Show, with its all-in appeal, felt like the mission statement of a group that sought mainstream attention, even if they stood against the status quo. By the time Leftback rolled around, Phonte’s direction was clear: “Rappin’ ‘Te, 4-and-a-half mic honoree? Or singin’ ‘Te, first time Grammy nominee.” Charity plays like the diary of a grown man who’s learned to slow down a bit, savoring the simple aspects of life. Phonte reminds his listeners that while he’d rather carry a tune, he can still carry 16 bars a lot further than most rappers. Let that boy sauté.