Phonte Reflects On 'Charity Starts At Home'


On Sept. 27, 2011, when Phonte released his solo debut, Charity Starts At Home, the calls for a solo album were almost deafening.

The album felt like a long time coming. He'd previously released three exceptional albums as one-half of the acclaimed rap group, Little Brother alongside Rapper Big Pooh— including two widely considered classics, 2003's The Listening and 2005's The Minstrel Show. Along the way, he dazzled fans when he showcased another side of his talent, and switched gears to release three essentially perfect albums as the frontman of the soul duo, The Foreign Exchange alongside producer Nicolay— Connected, Leave It All Behind, and Authenticity. By the time Phonte was ready to release Charity... anticipation was understandably high, and he didn't disappoint.

Like all of his projects, the album is concise at 11-tracks, a tightly-woven examination of where the always-forthright rapper was mentally at that time, delving into his perspectives about life and relationships while elevating his standing as one of Hip-Hop's most gifted, relatable pontificators.

"I spent the first decade of my career working in service of groups, whether it was Little Brother or The Foreign Exchange. Charity Starts At Home was the first time I ever did something for myself," Phonte tells Rock The Bells. "A solo album was the one thing in my career that I hadn’t done before."

He comes out swinging on the head-bobbing opener produced by Swiff D, "Dance in the Reign" where he explains he's "back in the kitchen with a silk apron," and proceeds to detail exactly what he thinks of the rap game, his place in it, and his relationship with music and the business of music.

"I said let me know the troubles on your mind youngblood/And Lord willing me and you will solve them/He said Tay I worry about you in the rap game/I said motherfucker go and get a real problem/Please beg pardon but I'm not starvin'/This rap shit is not the life I live/It's a tool that I use, that's it/No great fortune to show for it but fortunate/That no one can say his life ain't his," he raps.

And so goes Phonte's general philosophy, one he's explored at points throughout the years — his art is about ensuring his freedom. He won't be boxed in by industry demands, or even his fanbase's ideas about what he should be doing with it. By the time he dropped Charity, he'd already broken from majors and started his own label with Nicolay, Foreign Exchange Records, stamping his ideology. After all, "Why rage against the machine when you can just unplug it?" he questions on "Everything Is Falling Down" featuring Jeanne Jolly.

On his solo debut, he's sharp as ever and displays his exceptional writing skills over mostly mellow grooves that settle quickly and then seep deeper as the deceptively layered context of his lyricism takes hold. Producer 9th Wonder, who he started his Little Brother career with, shows up on the groove-heavy "Not Here Anymore" along with Elzhi, allowing both rappers to display why they're considered among rap's elite. He also teams up with Pharoahe Monch on "We Go Off" and Big K.R.I.T. and Evidence on "Life of Kings" but mostly, it's just Phonte in his element— funny, relaxed, and insightful.

For years, he'd already been a quiet contender for rap's best lyricist, and with his solo debut, he says that while he did feel some pressure, mostly he was curious. "There’s pressure with every album because I always want to give my best, but I’d say that curiosity fueled the creation of Charity," he says. "I was curious to hear what a Phonte album sounded like because I’d never made one."

In the end, Charity stands as an essential entry into Phonte's long discography, an entry into what he'd expound upon with his stellar solo follow-up, 2018's No News Is Good News.

"When I finished the record, I was overjoyed and exhausted," he says. "That “thank God” at the end of the album is real…lol."