The Underrated: Phonte

By @TrueGodImmortal 

For many, if you ask them the greatest rapper to come from North Carolina, they would probably remark one of the biggest stars currently in the game, J. Cole. And with all due respect to the Dreamville captain, while he is definitely the most popular to come from the state (unless someone wants to give Petey Pablo his well deserved credit for being in the greatest film scene ever.... Drumline), he isn't necessarily the greatest rapper to come from the state. That title belongs to one of the all time underrated MCs, Phonte Coleman. Though many not be too familiar with his extensive catalog, over the years, Phonte has amassed a number of great moments and projects and today, we wanted to look back at his career thus far. Let's get into it.

Little Brother
His run in Little Brother is probably slept on and his most famous moment in the same breath. The group only put out 4 albums total with a few mixtapes to boot, but their output was definitely noteworthy and featured some classics in the catalog. The 2003 debut "The Listening" is one of the best hip hop debuts of the 2000s and the lyrical skill of Phonte and Big Pooh along with the amazing production stylings of 9th Wonder made this an album to remember. They would go on to release the underrated mixtapes "The Chitlin Circuit" and "The Chitlin Circuit 1.5", both of which featured some great music, from the Consequence and Kanye West assisted "I See Now" to one of my personal favorite LB songs, "Nobody Like Me", which featured one of my favorite Phonte verses, which I'll get to later on actually. Both of these projects showcased Phonte at his best, and this is where I think he was hitting his stride from an artistry standpoint.

This stride would help make the classic album "The Minstrel Show" THAT much better, as some of the best verses in hip hop were featured here from Phonte. The album, built around the titular concept, was full of straightforward hip hop with a message behind it along with emotional complexities on songs like "Slow It Down" and "All For You", two of the most honest songs in hip hop history IMO. While "The Minstrel Show" didn't light up the charts like it deserved to, it's a staple in 2000s hip hop music, with some of the absolute best production and lyricism that you could have possibly hear. Phonte would be the MVP of this album and when I think of his legacy, this album is probably the shining achievement.

It was after "The Minstrel Show" where we saw the dynamic change in Little Brother, as 9th Wonder departed from the group,  and they left Atlantic Records, preparing for their "Getback" album in late 2007. That album isn't remembered as much as their first two, but it was definitely enjoyable and Phonte had some classic verses on songs like "Dreams" and "Sirens". In the mixtape department, before the release of "Getback", they put out the "Separate But Equal" Gangsta Grillz mixtape and the Mick Boogie assisted "Justus For All", both of which are very dope listens, but I'm a bit biased to "Separate But Equal", due to some of the verses from Phonte. The end of the Little Brother story came in the form of a slightly sloppy album titled "Leftback", released in 2010, which saw no contribution from 9th Wonder and felt more like leftover tracks from their "Getback" sessions rather than an actual album. Still, regardless of how that saga ended, the Little Brother discography is still one of the more solid ones in hip hop during the 2000s, and as far as hip hop groups go, I think they have the best discography of the 2000s.

Foreign Exchange
The truth be told, I was hesitant at first to give this a listen. Foreign Exchange was the brainchild of Netherlands producer Nicolay and Phonte, as they made music without meeting each other (the power of the internet was really showcased within that, and Foreign Exchange was ahead of its time in many ways in concept). Because I was not really familiar with Nicolay, I wasn't really sure what to expect when I went to a local CD store and bought the first Foreign Exchange album "Connected", but I was intrigued at least. I was pleasantly surprised here, as the music is flawless and almost every song on this album is smooth and enjoyable. I think the balance of melody and rapping along with the features from Darien Brockington help elevate the project. The same can be said for the more R&B/Neo-Soul tinged follow up Foreign Exchange album "Leave It All Behind", which had more melody and lesser rapping, but it worked. I'd even go as far as saying that it is better than Connected in a way.

Either way, those first two Foreign Exchange albums are near classics and the best from the Foreign Exchange discography, but that hasn't stopped the music from flowing. There's been many more projects, including "Authenticity" and the most recent "Tales From The Land of Milk And Honey". While Foreign Exchange has become a vital part of Phonte and his career, to me it is still slightly below Little Brother in terms of importance of his legacy. Though FE has become his focus, and even got a Grammy nomination, there was something about the purity and the focus of Little Brother that exceeds FE just slightly. Regardless, FE has been one of the more consistent musical movements in the genre for nearly 13 years, and every project seems to show clear evolution.

Solo Projects
There isn't much to speak of for Phonte in terms of solo projects, but he did manage to release a solo album in 2011, the great "Charity Starts at Home", which is my favorite release from that year. He has another solo album currently in the works and one might consider his Tigallerro project slightly a solo album, though he splits most of the work with longtime collaborator Eric Roberson. Regardless, despite a lack of solo projects, we have seen that Phonte could very well hold down a solo album if need be, and he has "No News Is Good News" due sometime later in 2017 and we can't wait.

Guest Appearances
-If there is one thing that Phonte has excelled at, it is guest appearances. From his verses on Evidence's tracks like "Let Yourself Go" and "Whom The Bell Tolls", to his slick verse on the Buckshot assisted "Birdz (Fly The Coup)" all the way down to the fairly recent aggressive verse on Torae's "Clap Shit Up", Phonte has always been able to get on someone else's track and own it. For me, personally, his best guest verse comes in the form of his work with Strong Arm Steady on the very smooth "Best Of Times". That song is a classic to me, and probably one of the best hooks that Phonte has ever done. Another hook that most would remember is his work on the Playaz Circle "Paper Chaser" track, which came at a time when Phonte was experiencing a bit more love in 2007 from the mainstream rappers than years prior. Another hook that sticks in my head is his work on the Styles P and Pharoahe Monch track "Black Hand Side", as Phonte utilizes his knack for melody to add a soulful dimension to an empowering track.

I think his feature work with The Roots, Robert Glasper, Apathy, Royce Da 5'9, Mr. Porter, KAYTRANDA, and even Drake all speak to his ability to adapt to the artist he's working with and be versatile. He is one of the best feature artists ever IMO, as he never disappoints on any of them, and has had some of his best work from a hook perspective in his features.

Favorite Verses
It's hard to narrow down his greatest verses, but I'll pick 5 of my personal favorites here. He has a large collection of classic verses, but here are my 5 favorites.

*All For You (The Minstrel Show, 2005)
"I was looking at your photograph amazed how I favored you/
I remember being young wanting to play with you/
Cause you was a wild and crazy dude/
And now I understand why my momma couldn't never stay with you/
From the roots to the branches to the leaves/
They say apples don't fall far from the trees/
I used to find it hard to believe
And I swore that I would/
Always hold my family as long as I could/
But damn, our memories can be so misleading/
It's misery, I hate to see history repeating/
Thought you were the bad guy,
But I guess that's why, me and my girl split
And my son is leaving/
I did chores, did bills, and did dirt/
But I swear to God I tried to make that shit work/
'Til I came off tour to an empty house/
With all the dressers and the cabinets emptied out/
I think I must've went insane/
Thinking I was in love, but really in chains/
Trapped to this girl through the two-year old who carried my name/
I tried to stop tripping/
But yo, I couldn't and the plot thickened/
That shit affected me, largely
Because I know a lot of people want me/
To fail as a father, and the thought of that haunts me/
Especially when I check my rear-view mirror, and don't see him in his car seat/
So the next time it's late at night/
And I'm laid up with the woman I'mma make my wife/
Talking 'bout how we 'gon make a life/
I'm thinking about child support, alimony, visitation right/s
Cause that's the only outcome if you can't make it right/
Pissed off with your children feeling the same pain/
So, Pop, how could I blame/ cause you couldn't maintain/
I did the same thing/
The same thing/"

*Slow It Down (The Minstrel Show, 2005)
"Sometimes I think i’m from another world/
when I’m trynna tell a woman just exactly where i stand that/
I want a girl, when I want a girl/
And when I don’t want a girl, I want a girl who understands that/
And that’s some hard shit to explain/
To a woman that’s in love with you, it’s a pitiful thing/
until I had to figure/
That I don’t wanna play around, but I don’t wanna settle down
And that’s a man’s dilemma/
Cause every man remembers/
how his daddy and his uncles did it/
Cause more than likely that’s the way they’re gonna do it/
I know it sound fucked up and most wont admit it/
But yo, I gotta face it ’cause i know i’m living through it/
Cause when the party stops and niggas get old/
and the chain and the cars and The houses get sold/
And that other side of the bed gets cold/
You don’t wanna be alone
So girl i’m trynna hold you…/"

*B.O.O.N.D.O.C.K Saints (Separate But Equal, 2006)
"Right back to business off a six-week tour/
And I ain't never seen drama like this before/
Got a lot of shit to get off my chest/
Some wild shit to address/
So I told Khrysis press record/
I'mma put it on wax and give you the raw facts 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 would judge 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 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?/
Bitch it's Phontigga, lo the show ripper, Ho cause my hoes would change week to week/
But now my flows be changing from beat to beat/
Tell my nigga Jim Bowes he gotta beat the streets/
Cause I know that they need us/ There's got to be more to this generation, than dranking and smoking all they weed up/
This is my confession with the Embassy, you fuckin imbeciles can put your Rosary Beads up.../"

*Best Of Times (Strong Arm Steady, 2008)
"Yo, everybody got the blues and it's evident/
Got workers losing they jobs and they residence/
And overseas niggas filing out
Straight wilding out, tossing they shoes at the president/
It make me think about the loot that I shell out/
If times get tight will the show still sell out?/
Po' folk need help, they call it welfare
When rich folk need it, then y'all call it a bail out/
It make me wanna yell out/
But I just chill, because the love for my fam is priceless/
Long as I got them we'll be able to fight this/
Cause nigga I'm black, I was born in a financial crisis/
So no eulogies/
And no two-to-threes/
I'll survive cause being broke ain't new to me/
New opportunities and ways to grind/
Respect your mind/
And celebrate the best of times/
Now let's ride..."

*Speed (The Listening, 2003)
"Another day to face/
I'm share cropping in the paper chase/
Take a deep breath and clear my database/
It's afternoon I'm talking shit to my alarm clock/
Cause I gotta face this world of capitalistic onslaught/
Don't stop when I jump in the whip, tryin to get it off/
Beltline got me rushin like Barichnakof/
Pushin 80 miles per hour to this, call center/
Tryin to pick up a check I only see twenty percent a/
Until the weekend, it sound crazy when I'm sayin it/
But sleep is nice, got me forgettin what day it is/
Until my son two days with out speakin/
Looking for reasons/
To keep my heir from goin off the deep end/
I take this shit personally/
I'm makin moves, but this treadmill lifestyle ain't workin for me/
It's from ya crib to ya lab to ya job to make a profit/
And at the days end, you still got nothing accomplished/
And it's just the way it's goin down/
But on the real, I think I need to slow it down and slow it down/"

In many ways, Phonte has been an inspiration for some of your favorite artists, including Drake and on a lesser note, Kanye West. He's utilized melody in his music alongside an amazing amount of lyrical ability to be seen as one of the best to ever do it. Though you won't find him in the average person's top 10 all time rapper list, Phonte is an unsung hero of hip hop and is on my personal top 10, and I know a few people who would agree. What makes him such a special artist is that he's not limited. His lyricism is top notch, his vocal ability is special, and his ear for production is one of the best as well. When it's all said and done, Phonte is one of the best artists we've had the pleasure of listening to, not only throughout the 2000s and 2010s, but in the history of the genre. When you think of some of the all time underrated artists like AZ, Black Thought, and Pharoahe Monch, Phonte is either right there with them or slightly above them. He's just that great.



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