Hip-hop fans have been waiting. Ever since the split of North Carolina hip-hop group Little Brother, many have eagerly anticipated the moment when Phonte would step back in the limelight, grab the mic and start to rhyme again. But the past few years have witnessed Phonte forging his path as a successful R&B crooner with Grammy-nominated act The Foreign Exchange, with all thoughts of rapping in the back of his mind, appearing once in a blue moon. So when it was mentioned that Phonte was set to finally release his debut solo album, anticipation hit the roof. And when it was revealed that Phonte and 9th Wonder, the producer of Little Brother fame, had reunited earlier this year, Little Brother fans rejoiced. Everything seemed ready for the debut of Phonte Coleman. The question was who would take front and center: “rapping Tay, four-and-half-mic honoree/Or singing Tay, first-time Grammy nominee”?
While each side of Phonte appears on the album, it’s the rapper that takes center stage here, tackling themes that don’t stray far from the material he has been putting out over his career. The themes of the common man are heard, stories of ourselves at our worst and best. “The Good Fight” is a song about money woes, uncertainty of keeping the job and all the frustrations of a 9-5 that the majority of Americans face, especially in the midst of an economic downturn. “Ball and Chain” weighs the pros and cons of marriage, specifically the suffocation that occurs when love dies out in the house. And of course the album has its fair share of lyrical wizardry, such as the back and forth wordplay of Phonte and Pharoahe Monch on “We Go Off” and the opening track “Dance in the Reign.”
Lyrically, Phonte is better than ever. His album combines the rawness and honesty of his Little Brother persona with the maturation he achieved with his recent work as singer of The Foreign Exchange. Having written for himself and other artists since starting his adventures with The Foreign Exchange, Phonte has clearly polished his skills as a lyricist and now, on this debut album, he brings that experience and writes verses like a “pro with the prose/what a concept.” Even with his weaker punchlines, Phonte’s wit and charisma pulls him through, making the lines seem as if he’s delivering them with a wink and a sly smirk.
The production, for the most part, is solid. Nothing stands out, however, and it serves more as backdrop for the lyrical wordsmith to pick up his mic and paint images with words. 9th Wonder provides the same repetitive drum patterns and looped samples that he has become well-known for (whether that is for better or worse). Swiff D introduces the album on “Dance in the Reign” with a church organ and takes it to the church with a synth and Phonte preaching to the congregation. S-1 and Caleb bring a modern production to the quiet-storm sound with hard-hitting drums and an atmospheric sound that allows Phonte and Carlitta Durand to get musically romantic on “Gonna Be A Beautiful Night.”
Overall, Charity Starts At Home features mature, honest, and raw songs from N.C.’s top-notch spitter and crooner Phonte Coleman. It may not feature a breakout song, hold mind-blowing production, but it holds plenty of love and humility that hip-hop seems to have lost in recent years. The last line of the song “Who Loves You More” sums up the album perfectly: “I got a room and a microphone and a family I ain’t seen in months. And I played this record a million times just hoping you would play it once.” Phonte is one of us. He works hard at his job and goes through the struggles in life and love, just like any of us, hoping that someone will take notice at least once. “Let that boy saute!”