I couldn’t tell you where words and music fall on the hierarchy of things I love, but I’m sure they’re in the top 10. My love of music, specifically hip hop, probably originated in the First Grade around the same time I became fascinated with words. Hearing the density of words packed into a song and spoken to an infectious rhythm has always intrigued me. My love of rap music and words naturally lead me to gravitate towards the more lyrical emcees.
I could run down a list of at least 50 rappers off the top of my head who demonstrate lyrical dexterity and charisma, but there’s only a select few who have the power to draw an almost personal connection to me. Honestly, only one comes to mind and that’s Phonte Coleman. Better known as just Phonte, 1/3 of the rap group Little brother, ½ of the R&B duo The Foreign Exchange.
I was put on to Little Brother back in 2003 by my friend Marcus. Long before file sharing and streaming, he sent me their entire debut album “The Listening” as attachments over the span of 3 emails. The Listening was a boom bap masterpiece. Dropping during a time when I was still in “Hip Hop Purist” mode (read: arrogant music snob no one wants to hang around), I was all in. The sounds, the words, the nostalgia reminiscent of a time before shiny suits and 80’s pop samples, the chemistry between producer 9th Wonder and emcees Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte all intrigued me. Even the name of the group was a nod to the artists I grew up on; respect to those who came before them as their big brothers.
Rap groups today are a foreign concept, but in situations where there’s a rapping duo one usually stands out to you more than the other. That’s not any disrespect to the other rapper in the group, but it happens all the time. With Little Brother, it was Phonte who caught my ear.
No, he DEMANDED my ear.
I knew from the first listen that Phonte’s raps were what I would sound like if I could rap. (I cannot. At ALL! Slant rhymes escape me.) Honest to a fault, vulnerable, cocky, yet humble, Phonte is me in an alternate universe. I mean, they guy could make you bob your head to a verse that DOESN’T EVEN RHYME! I’ll never forget the first time I listened to “Whatever You Say” and hearing him reveal that open secret at the end of his first verse. A perfect demonstration of rhythm, cadence, and inflection being the icing on top of his masterful grasp of vocal expression.
An English major from North Carolina Central University, Phonte can manipulate the language like none other. It seems like every song I hear from him causes me to look up the definition of a new word and incorporate it into my daily conversation. I mean, why else would I use the word “undulating” in a sentence? Listening to a Phonte verse is entertaining, challenging, and awe inspiring all at once. And it’s not just me who finds him inspiring. Chances are your favorite rapper finds inspiration in him as well.
While most rappers shy away from the less than glamorous parts of their life, Phonte has no problem being vulnerable in his records. Whether it’s talking about the effect of growing up without his father, or standing his ground with his mother, he approaches each topic with brutal honesty and candor unseen in rap, much less any form of music. With that honesty, its’ no surprise self-deprecating humor comes with it. You won’t find any other rapper that opens themselves up, warts and all, and is still as lyrically nice as Phonte.
But like so many great rappers before him (Lauryn Hill, Andre 3000, Cee-Lo), Phonte has shifted from rapping to primarily singing. While his debut album with Dutch producer Nicolay as The Foreign Exchange saw him spitting the vulnerable yet cocky, lyrically dense bars I came to love from him, the subsequent albums focused more on his singing than rapping. We did get a full solo album from him in 2011, but his rapping releases seem to be few and far between here lately. And that’s ok. I’ll take his quality over the quantity of other rappers output any day.
As I’ve gotten older, my musical tastes have become more diverse. No longer a “Hip Hop Elitist”, my preferences range from country to trap rap. But I constantly find myself coming back to rest in the comfort of the “grown man rap” Phonte has been spitting since he was a young man. To me, his realness and relatability, combined with his mastery of the King’s English, puts him on a level that not many other rappers can reach. No matter the situation, I know he has something to say that perfectly aligns with how I feel.
And if the music you love can’t serve as surrogate for your feelings, why are you even listening to it?