Hip-Hop may be a young person’s game, but there are now grandparents making and consuming the music. It’s silly to assume that people who started listening to rap music during the mid ’80s or even the ’90s are going to move on just because they’ve got some grey hairs and have aged out of the club scene. Yet the sentiment persists that “adult hip-hop” is a contradiction in terms. Fortunately, there are artists like Phonte Coleman here to disabuse anyone of this notion.
Phonte first made his name as one third of the legendary North Carolina hip-hop group Little Brother. Around the mid ’00s, he formed the soul/R&B group The Foreign Exchange with producer Nicolay, and has spent the better part of the last decade recording and touring with the Grammy-nominated group.
Every once and a while, Phonte briefly decides to flow again. He dropped his first solo album Charity Starts At Home in 2011 to some serious critical acclaim. After a five-year hip-hop hiatus, in February 2016 he promised to release No News Is Good News by September of that year, but it failed to transpire. However, unexpectedly, after close to a year and a half of silence regarding the project, on the morning of March 1st, Phonte announced the album would be dropping at midnight. And lo and behold, the album has been worth the wait, setting the bar moving forward for grown-up hip-hop.
No News Is Good News has three separate acts: (1) pure lyrical displays, (2) meditations on growing old, and (3) inspirational declarations about learning to get the most out of life. Phonte doesn’t rap nearly as much now as he did during the early stages of his career, seeing as his singing continues to earn him the most attention these days. But the man happily hasn’t lost a step when it comes to blessing the mic, and proves himself capable of still spitting fiyah verses.
Much like Charity Starts At Home, Phonte races out of the gate dropping lyrical bombs on tracks like the brief “To the Rescue” and “Pastor Tigallo.” “So Help Me God” features Phonte at his punchline-dropping best, flowing effortlessly over a piano loop and horn track produced by Marco Polo, reminding listeners that he’s “still pacin’, still gracin’ hard beats ever since y’all car seats was still rear facin’.” He then warns his enemies, “Look, man, we are not in concert / This is not a game n****, we are not in Contra / Imma kill shit, I'm a be a silent monster / That will shit to happen like he Tio Salamanca / Bogart ya whole shit like we in Casablanca.”
On the second section of the album, Phonte spends time contemplating his own mortality, first with a little humor, then with increasing seriousness and introspection. On “Expensive Genes” he begins to explore the impact unhealthy living has on his own life and those of his peers. Nottz produces a short synth and keyboard-driven jam for a subject that’s especially relevant these days, given the spate of deaths among rappers in their mid to late forties due to health issues, e.g. Phife Dawg, Nate Dogg, and Craig Mack.
Phonte tries to make sense of it as he raps, “Cough medicine, blood thinners and antihistamines / We got the ocean front view but scope is so limited / ’Cause young n****s be dyin’ of old n***a shit / Wifey sleeping in the guest room ’cause you snore at night / It’s like 40 years old is three quarters life / Our biggest fears were shots or armed robbery / Now the biggest fears are clots and oncology.”
“Cry No More” is a more reflective song about similar subject matter. Phonte describes growing up without his father in his life, because he lived fast, picked up a lot of unhealthy habits and was dead by the age of 54. While considering his mother’s increasingly poor health, he swears to take better care of himself so that he can be the parent that his own children deserve.
The third and final section of No News Is Good News concerns learning to find happiness, often through love of another and through others. The section begins with “Change of Mind,” where Phonte utilizes his vocals rather than his lyrical stylings. Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs provides the rapping, dropping a verse celebrating finding the ideal woman.
Phonte then testifies to his own happiness on “Sweet You,” explaining “In all my years, this was the easiest song to write.” He rejoices in marrying the woman that is the best for him, as they both learned to move past their own baggage and form a partnership as adults. He basks in the glow of living the “washed life,” spending time on the couch with his wife with “two pillows, one pillow case.” It’s the most mature hip-hop track about love ever released.
It’s always a pleasure to hear Phonte rapping. Though his bread and butter these days is singing, he’s still one of the most singularly-talented emcees working today, and this album only reinforces that. It’s tempting to complain about the album’s brevity: it only boasts 10 tracks and runs 33 minutes in length. But, truth be told, Phonte says everything he needs to say in a brief amount of time, and leaves the listeners wanting more. Hopefully he won’t make the audience wait as long next time.
Notable Tracks: “Cry No More” | “Expensive Genes” | “So Help Me God” | “Sweet You”