Joel Biswas is spreading the good news.
In a genre where admission of failure is almost always a rhetorical device presaging inevitable triumph, Phonte Coleman’s hustle boils down to one question: How do you pay the rent and keep your soul? A charismatic rapper with a mellifluous flow and barbed wit, Phonte lit up the scene with Little Brother in the early 2000s, wittily skewering industry bullshit one moment and bitterly lamenting the hollowness of success the next. It was electric.
Here was an MC who could spit wicked East Coast quotables with just the right touch of syncopated NC drawl, realizing in real-time that just maybe he hated the game more than he loved rap. Since then, Phonte’s over-riding preoccupation has been balancing creative and personal growth. He’s an over-thinker who’s never more than two lines away from deep introspection, still haunted by that brush with mainstream acclaim over a decade ago and still burning with the rage to compete.
His last full length rap album, the accomplished but uneven Charity Starts at Home revolved around bleak vignettes of a fracturing relationship and scenes of working class strife intermingled with crowd-pleasing 9th Wonder boom bap. He then abandoned rap altogether, blazing an idiosyncratic trail as a honey-voiced crooner over three breezy albums with Foreign Exchange and Eric Roberson. But the melancholy was never far off. Even his 2015 hit “One Too Many” with Kaytranada undercut a sleek club track with a wistful middle-aged lament about the dangers of chasing the night.
This far from straightforward path to a sophomore album makes No News is Good News a cathartic, hard-won career high. Things kick off with the DJ Harrison-produced “To the Rescue”—the rousing sound of Phonte dropping adamantium bars over a symphonic synth backdrop that recalls the sunny vibe of his first Foreign Exchange album. “So Help Me God” follows with Coleman letting verbal rounds fly over stark piano and snare, dismantling cap gun rappers and one rounders at a stroke. It’s the closest anything comes to the signature Little Brother sound and that’s a very good thing.
“Pastor Tigallo” rides a sparkling horn powered groove while Phonte drops “prosperity rap shit” that neatly marries the sonic worlds of rap and R&B that he traverses so effortlessly. Joy and suffering are a duality in his work. The moodier “Expensive Genes” explores realizations of mortality in middle age with the kind of relatable realness that no one does better, if at all. Lines like “Our biggest fear were shots and armed robbery/ now the biggest fear is clocks and oncology” bite deep and linger. “Cry No More” is a stark elegy that’s by turns confrontational and wistful as Phonte watches himself play out old family dynamics first as tribute then as spite and finally out of resigned hopelessness. It’s the softest killing of all.
The second half of the album rides a sweet redemptive curve. “Such is Life” sees Phonte “using melody for malady” while ruefully acknowledging that it’s been a hard year, while “Change of Mind” flirts with chart aspirations thanks to a strong assist from Freddie Gibbs and will only reinforce the narrative of Phonte as a stylistic precursor to Drake.
The album closes with love songs as Phonte’s mature stylistic world reaches full flower. At 39, he’s finally in an abundant mind-set, open enough to accept joy at face value and able cast his unsparing eye over the brutality of experience without reserving the harshest criticism for himself. Beyond the mastery of form on his own terms, there’s a wisdom here. “My mind is clear and the vision is unclouded” he raps, as his art bears him steadily towards the light.