Review: Phonte – No News is Good News

Life has not been easy for North Carolina-based multi-genre artist and underground staple Phonte Coleman since we last heard from him, and his recent years have been plagued by death and heartbreak. Through the storm of divorce, burying his father, health scares and the death of his Uncle, Phonte has emerged remarried, wiser and with a host of wisdom to impart over Nottz, Marco Polo and Illingsworth production. Though resurfacing for the lively collab Tigallerro with frequent collaborator Eric Roberson (who is featured on No News is Good News), it’s been almost 7 years since Charity Starts at Home, his last solo effort. When Charity Starts at Home dropped it served as a refreshing reintroduction to hip-hop’s premier everyman, an itch left partially unscratched when Tig isn’t actively recording.

Three quarters of a decade later, No News is Good News is more than a return to form for Phonte, its a reworking and retooling of his trademark style to fit into not just a rap game that’s experienced severe change but a changed world in general. Though more typical emcees may explore this shifted landscape through a politically-charged album, Phonte chooses instead to examine the impact of symptoms of this world on a more human scale. An artist like Phonte has always offered his criticism of both aforementioned topics, and manifests his frustrations in an almost desperate display of emotion, particularly when taking on a topic like death.

No News is Good News is a multidimensional album title, serving first as a tongue-in-cheek joke aimed at ravenous and overbearing fans badgering a man going through divorce and death, and for art that comes out of these same tragedies. He took up an attitude of “when you stop asking me about it, I’ll have time to finish it” about the project during his hiatus so truthfully, no news about it was good news. More severely, the title is also a statement on the fickle nature of life and a reminder to enjoy the smaller things in a world that can see life lost at any moment – a central theme of the album and Phonte’s own story.

Similar structurally to his previous solo effort, Phonte takes the first couple tracks to reestablish his niche as one of the underground’s most reliable sources of bars, before getting into the more core themes. These take the form off “To the Rescue” and the slightly more true to Phonte’s nature, “So Help Me God”. The former begins exactly as the intro to Charity Starts at Home, a spoken introduction courtesy of longtime friend and collaborator DJ Bro Rabb. This callback sets the tone for a song that serves a similar tool in the album’s makeup – the intro flex track.

Never much for materialism, Tig’s brand of flexing takes the form of expertly weaving his homegrown and genuine swagger with warnings to challengers, tied together over a succinct and soulful beat with vocals courtesy of Carmen Rodgers. In case you still had doubts over whether Phonte could rap, “So Help Me God” reminds you by beating the concept into your skull with top tier wordplay and quotables placed over hard snares and vocal samples, Marco Polo’s production matching Tig’s energy.

Look man we are not in concert
This is not a game nigga we are not in Contra
I’ma kill shit I’ma be a silent monster
That will shit to happen like he Tio Salamanca
Bogard ya whole shit like we in Casablanca

With the listener satisfied Tigallo is free to explore the deeper and more serious themes of the album and the sources of both the hiatus and pain that led to the songs that broke it. The 1-2 punch of “Expensive Genes” to “Cry No More” is perhaps the album’s finest moment, and one that puts Phonte perfectly in his lane. The former is a testament to mortality, or rather the bootleg version of it that he and many other black males are born with due to family history and genetics. With a father who died at 54 and a host of his own health problems, “Expensive Genes” is a defenseless Phonte, powerless against “Blackness, the most expensive gene of all.”

This tonality pivots masterfully into “Cry No More”, a continuation of these topics over dreamy synths and shimmering piano. Phonte’s “grown man rap” is on full display with provoking lines such as “put my pops in the ground, hit the repast and ate the same shit that killed him.” Lines like this are exemplary of why Tig’s viewpoint is so refreshing. In a genre full of carefully cultivated superhuman personas, vulnerability and an admission that he doesn’t have all the answers are just two of the reasons albums like No News is Good News stand out. After burial, melancholy lingers with Phonte expertly communicating his pain – “Starin’ at my ceiling fan, tryin’ to be a man/Wishin’ I had a chance to be his son first”.

Over the course of the song melancholy is slightly upgraded to a kind of tired hope, and Phonte uses his pain to form lessons to fathers.

But be his ride or die, even if you two ain’t seein’ eye to eye
Teach him how to throw a punch, ride a bike, tie a tie
Hold on to ’em while you can, this is just what I advise

The bleakness begins to give way to hope around the aptly titled “Such is Life”. Phonte is slightly uplifted after his break of vulnerability as he determines he “deserves to sing a hopeful song and not a dirge”. This line feels like a segue into the album’s next chapter, categorized by soulful soundscapes and love songs, but not before Phonte reinforces this point with terse, well-crafted lines like this.

I guess I can’t be mad at all, it’s just reality
So I let melody be medicine for malady
Sing a simple song, fuck the formalities

This sequence of soul includes the intriguing “Change of Mind”, with Freddie Gibbs offering the sole guest verse on the album. Phonte chooses to play second fiddle, providing beautifully sung hooks about ventures of love until Gibbs comes in with a sweet and wholesome verse about his wife. Songs like this and “Sweet You” help an album that was once a wasteland of grief end on a hopeful note. “Sweet You” is, as quoted by Tig, “in all my years, my easiest song song to write” and a display moving enough for the listener to hope they’ll never have to hear about heartbreak from Phonte for a long time.

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