The timing of hearing a certain song can drastically influence where you rank an artist on the coveted “Top 5” List. Little Brother happened to leak into my earholes my senior year of high school. You know… that time when you’re learning time management, juggling between school, sports, work and parties. You’re trying to figure out what’s the next step in your journey to adulthood.
Well skimming across music on MySpace I came across, Little Brother’s “What You Do”. In a world where Lil Jon (one of my personal faves) and Petey Pablo were running the air wayes, I was shocked to find a song with no 808s and pure lyricism from a bunch of Southern guys similar to myself. It wasn’t quite preachy, but it was FAR away from the typical crunk stuff I was always hearing when I went out to the local teen clubs in my city.
I was working at Albertson’s and learning how to budget money… and in order to keep that money coming in, I had to keep my job so that I could buy all the books and music I liked to blow money on. The line “You better watch what you say and what you do, because you never really know who got they eyes on you,” kept me in line when management or lazy coworkers, or racists wanted the hood side to jump out of my body!
After listening to Chitlin Circuit 1.5 on repeat online, I eventually bought that and The Minstrel Show from Best Buy and haven’t climbed out that rabbit hole since.
I had just graduated high school so I was listening to The Minstrel Show on my commutes from the local college on the South Side all way to my job on the West Side via the T bus. I remember an older gentleman told me, “that music must really hit since you’re bobbing so hard to it.” The song in question was “Say It Again,” a more upbeat song for an LB track with their brand of college guy humor and hilarious ad libs (my favorite being “she’s your queen to be”) There were definitely worse ways to sit through a 3 hour roundtrip commute.
Even though there were two rappers in Little Brother, I naturally gravitated toward Phonte because his cadence and rhyme patterns resonated with how I wrote in my notebooks. Not to mention he actually has a great singing voice. A great example of a song that showed his range, at that point in time, was “Dreams” off the Getback album. It reminds me of the conversation that everybody has to have with their parent as a young adult, “Momma I got dreams, but dreams don’t keep the lights on”
I really wasn’t feeling the business major thing and wanted to switch over to a music major, but my mom didn’t seem to be feeling that (hey, orchestra and FL Studio had me always scribbling down melodies) I would still find solace in going to the store and dropping $20 on the new albums of the week.
But that didn’t mask the fact that rumors were flying around about a break up of my favorite rap group. 9th Wonder already left prior to Getback, but after Rapper Big Pooh dropping a couple solo projects and Phonte prepping up a new The Foreign Exchange album, it seemed inevitable.
I remember the day that Leave It All Behind out came out. I hit up my homeboy saying, “Man, The Foreign Exchange went full R&B with this album!” I was 20 at the time and he told me, “Yeah, he’s a grown man with kids and he’s trying to make work that reflects that.” (Or something of that nature, this was almost a decade ago!)
The sound that Phonte and Nicolay created was very risky, but for the long term it became THEIR sound. Nicolay handled the musical production side, and Phonte handled the vocal tweaks. He’s one of the few artists that keeps a female vocalist on his songs. He’ll let the lady take the lead and do the background vocals on a song that he did all the writing for… but that’s neither here nor there. While I love The Foreign Exchange and see them whenever they come in town, I was concerned that Tigallo was leaving rap alone. Especially with Grammy nods from Leave It All Behind.
I’ve purchased every Little Brother album, even most albums with them featured on just one track… except for Getback. It was the nail in the coffin for a group that helped me make it through job loss, dating duds, college finals, near depression. To see them split ways was too much. While they did split, Rapper Big Pooh was still sticking to rap, and he had the first Kendrick Lamar verse that I ever heard on Nothing Less (when he was still going by K. Dot… but that’ll be a blog for another day) But was Tay still rapping?
After Leave It All Behind Phonte was featured on more R&B joints and releasing more singers music through his and Nicolay’s labels. I liked and copped a lot of that stuff, but I didn’t hear a lot of rapping. +FE dropped Authenticity, a phenomenal album, with only one Tay rap verse. It was a dark soulful album, created while Phonte was going through a divorce. This would’ve made for a fire rap album!
Then came Charity Starts at Home!
It was a reunion of sorts because 9th Wonder helmed most of the beats, including the lyrical monster of a track “Life of Kings” with Tay dropping dope punchlines and Big K.R.I.T. ultimately stealing the show. It showed that Southern artists could be lyrical without it “sounding weird”. The album touched on relationship rockiness, problems with family and job struggles.
While Phonte has primarily stuck with his own brand of great R&B through the years, he’s popped his head out with some bars on occasion. “Thru The Night” on the Tigallerro album was super dope, and “Waiting 4 Ya” as well. He even had the best rap verse on Kaytranada with One Too Many. And even though it’s unfortunate they didn’t renew The Breaks for another season, it has put him back in his bag musically. So now the work will continue with his new hip hop album.
So, if you’ve ever met me, you’d know that I’m a huge Cee Lo Green fan, I feel Phonte should be up there with him. He started as an extremely dope rapper, and evolved into a great singer with his own style. He’s always been that guy that’s one hit away. Luckily they don’t date stamp you in R&B like they do in hip hop, and I hope that he can make it big off his next album (no matter the genre) so that they can scribe him up there with the elites like I do in my own mind!