Wednesday, March 7, 2018

album review: 'no news is good news' by phonte

So I've never really talked much about Phonte in any of my work - and unlike cases where I just haven't had the chance to delve into an MC's back catalog, this is more a case of timing rather than ignorance - the last full Phonte record dropped in 2011, before I started even writing these reviews, and while he did put out a collaborative record with Eric Robertson in 2016, I honestly didn't hear much buzz around it, critical or otherwise, it never came up on my radar. 

Which is kind of a shame, really - Phonte has gotten flagged by critics as a 'rapper's rapper', more known by MCs who can appreciate his hard-hitting wordplay but not moving significant units, and this is a reputation that goes all the way back to his work with Little Brother in the mid-2000s on records like The Minstrel Show. Critically acclaimed - and going back to that record, deservedly so - but bad promotion by Atlantic meant it didn't sell nearly as well as projected, so Phonte went back independent for his future projects.

And yet if I'm being honest, I'm not sure Phonte couldn't flourish in the mainstream - his bars were tight, sure, but he knew his way around great hooks and accessible production, and when you factor in how he had a pretty damn solid voice to sing his own hooks, which he has proven time and time again with his work in The Foreign Exchange, he really should have been bigger, especially considering the veterans he surrounded himself with like Elzhi, Evidence, Pharoahe Monch, and even follow-artist-who-really-should-have-crossed-over-to-the-mainstream-but-for-label-bullshit Big K.R.I.T.. So when I heard he was dropping a new solo project at a lean thirty-three minutes, I muscled this up my schedule and prepared to dig in deep: what did we get from No News Is Good News?

Honestly, folks, I know I've said a number of times that some reviews just don't leave me much to say beyond 'this project is damn great, go listen to it' - and normally I still wind up putting together something that's longer than expected... but with No News Is Good News, I'm not sure there's a need to go much deeper. Because when you break it down, this is a straightforward-enough update to where Phonte has been between solo hip-hop releases that's a little more mature and measured, but no less smooth and effective, maybe playing to a slightly older audience because of its production but still plenty accessible and living proof that Phonte doesn't need to chase trends to stay in the hip-hop conversation.

And here's the thing: while the content could be deemed as playing to a slightly older demographic, with a focus on established relationships, reflecting on age and the loss of parents and his own personal health going forward and ultimately taking an optimistic eye for the future, it doesn't come across as 'old' or 'preachy', and a huge part of this comes in the framing. Phonte might express some distaste for modern trends and the unspoken truth that so many people demanding bars really can't handle them on 'So Help Me God', but it's more driven out of an acknowledgement of his own lane, his audience who will stick around, and confidence in what he can deliver - and that he can outrap so many of those unskilled rappers in his sleep with references that never feel forced or lacking in cohesion. And as he sees himself and his parents get older or pass away, he's smart enough to acknowledge that every coming generation ignores the lessons of their folks until they get old enough to deliver them to their kids, and there's enough distance and honesty about his own mistakes and insecurities that doesn't care to pass down any sort of judgement. It's a sense of pragmatism and wry observation on songs like 'Such Is Life' that when coupled with ruthlessly well-structured internal rhymes and flows that makes these songs go down incredibly easy, from the layered braggadocious bars of 'So Help Me God' to how it breaks down further into a deconstruction of his own creative process on 'Pastor Tigallo', before it gets even more intimate and personal on questions of aging, both his own on 'Expensive Genes' and his parents on 'Cry No More'. Granted, some of this is helped by the fact he's unafraid to put more relationship-centric songs like 'Sweet You' and 'Change Of Mind' on the back half of the record or just step into phenomenal groove-driven jams like 'Find The Love Again', which along with the closer shows finding that internal peace and balance can be the sort of honest personal renewal he needs, and even if he's not quite there yet, he's more confident that he's on the right path.

And really, the more I worked to dig into Phonte's bars the less I found to outright complain about - this is tightly written to a fault, and while moments like the extended shoutouts on 'Find The Love Again' feel a tad gratuitous, there's very little to nitpick there. And when you go into the production, it's much the same: layered bars against synth tones imported from g-funk, sultry hooks, well-developed basslines, and drum pickups that feel crisp while still maintaining real depth and control. In particular I want to call out the piano lines that saturate songs like 'So Help Me God' and 'Change Of Mind' against the richer drum tones, or the gorgeous tinkling shimmer you get on 'Cry No More' and 'Such Is Life', although in the former case some of the flat, buzzy synths do clash a bit in one of the few concessions to modernity that doesn't quite compliment the groove. And really, that's minor, but when you do compare them to the gleaming chimes and g-funk of 'Find The Love Again' that sounds so lush and poised, or the rattling, slightly more aggressive melody and cracking beat of 'Euphorium (Back To The Light)', there are a few points where they could blend a bit better. And on a similar note, while Freddie Gibbs' guest verse was welcome against Phonte's singing on 'Change Of Mind' - I've always dug it when Gibbs writes about his relationship with such frank detail - I do wish that song had a verse from Phonte himself - but really, that highlights my biggest criticism overall in that some songs could just use a little more meat or another verse to really drive them home for me. I get how the opener 'To The Rescue' and closer 'Euphorium (Back To The Light)' might not need more, but considering how skilled of a storyteller Phonte is and how lush his production can feel, he probably could have gotten away adding another verse to 'Expensive Genes' or 'Sweet You' beyond just ad libs.

But again, if I'm asking for an MC to add more content, you've got something great here, and I really did like this project a lot. Phonte is proving with every project that far from being just a 'rapper's rapper', he's just underrated as a whole, and No News Is Good News is the latest and one of the most stark examples. For me, this is an easy 8/10 and certain I'm recommending this, especially if you're a fan of smooth and smart hip-hop with the poise and charisma to back it up. And considering how tight and accessible this project feels, there's no excuse not to get on-board - definitely make the time to check this out, you won't regret it!

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