Phonte - Charity Starts at Home
Record Label: Foreign Exchange Music
Release Date: September 27, 2011
It was about half-way through my third spin of Phonte's latest album Charity Starts at Home that I realized what was happening.
I wasn't feeling anything. And I mean nothing at all. This wasn't because of any glaring flaws or uncreative lyrics, because the album carries neither. But nothing was grabbing me in any noticeable way. As I sat down to write a review, I found myself unable to elicit any internal commentary, positive or negative. So I left it at that. It was added to a short list of albums that I felt I would not be able to give a fair review to and forgotten.
Charity somehow found its way back into my playlist a few days later. My memory is terrible, so things like this happen. “Dance in the Reign” began, like it had before, with a live introduction before jumping headlong into the meat of a basic beat, disciplined organ chords, and futuristic synth. I immediately (read: figuratively) slapped myself for being so dense, because it had finally clicked for me. Maybe a few lines stuck out that I had missed before, or maybe the simple and atmospheric vocal chorus found congruence with my altered emotional state. Whatever it was, something in me harmonized with the album that, for some reason, wasn't there before.
But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. While Phonte himself is an incredibly endearing figurehead throughout the whole of Charity, the album isn't exactly mind-blowing. On the surface, it doesn't amount to much more than an above-average hip-hop album. It carries hints of the soul and R&B edge that Phonte has sharpened on other projects and pays homage to these forerunners with obvious respect, but never really breaks from the mold in a creative way. Much of the album's production follows the same basic formula found on its contemporaries, surprising with the amount of input 9th Wonder had on that end, but lays a solid foundation that allows Phonte to find a few decent hooks to hang his competent lyricism on.
After the intro, Charity rolls along admirably before hitting its stride with “Not Here Anymore.” Sustained by the soul sampling and vocal originality typical of a 9th Wonder track, the track is lightly arranged but full of character. Phonte displays rough lyricism with an astonishingly smooth edge, rhyming on the unoriginal notion that he's the greatest in the game. Elzhi hops on the track with a verse full of the same thematic derivatives, but does so with a comparative swagger that makes it hard to fault either artist. The composition uses a short snare to segue to the next track, a similarly produced piece of silky lyricism titled “Eternally.” Backed up by fellow Justus League member Median, Phonte borrows elements showcased in earlier tracks to build up his own verses without stealing too much of the spotlight. Median follows along admirably, strong in his purpose while still gelling well with the lead artist.
And that's good, because its what Phonte alone brings to the table that makes Charity pop after repeated listens. His flow and vocal composition are solid, rarely faltering even as they ricochet from gentle to intense. While obscure references and in-jokes are nothing new when it comes hip-hop, Phonte really shines in this regard. The amount of creativity he brings to the table is nothing short of spectacular, every syllable in its right place with little hint of strain. Mentions from Rage Against the Machine to American football can be found within Charity's confines, but they present themselves in complete seriousness and rarely feel forced.
Past that, unfortunately, is where Charity starts to lag. Tracks like “Sendin' My Love” and “Ball and Chain” offer interesting dialogue from two differing perspectives on relationships, but contrast very little when it comes to their technical makeup. Nothing is even near horrendous, but the lack of diversity from track to track is Charity's Achilles' heel. The monotony is thankfully broken a bit near the end of the album with a few respectable features. “We Go Off” sees Pharoahe Monche unleash his own unique brand of insanity over an equally pounding beat. The peculiar mix of soothing sampled vocals and Monche's unrelenting assault is one of Charity's most compelling chapters, and one that demands repeated plays. Evidence and Big K.R.I.T. team up to assist Phonte on “The Life of Kings” near the end of the album, and fill their roles admirably. The simplified production style allows the three lyricists and their royally influenced verses to shine through all the more, and the chemistry the trio present throughout is as engrossing as it is impressive.
With Charity, Phonte seemed to take it easy when compared to some of his earlier work with groups like Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange. Though the production rarely differs from track to track, Phonte's mere presence is enough to make each and every one an involving experience. The final track, “Who Loves You More” sees Phonte describing himself as a work in progress, a declaration that's both humble in its openness and almost comical when compared to the artist's earlier acknowledgment of his own skill. But “work in progress” is also the perfect way to look at Charity as a whole. Both the intro and outro provided quick glimpses of layered composition and intriguing thought, but unfortunately sandwich tracks devoid of the same brilliance between them. My experiences with Charity have obviously been a roller-coaster of extreme highs and lows, but it's a ride I implore everyone to experience for themselves.
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