It’s one thing to be a 40-year-old in hip-hop, but it’s something entirely different when you actually rap about what life looks like in your middle-aged years. For some, rhyming about high blood pressure and living a washed life is uncool. But Phonte could care less what people think.
Ever since the trio of 9th Wonder, Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte burst on the scene as Little Brother with The Listening in 2003, Phonte has made it a point to rhyme about the modern man’s hustle. Whether it be the humorous pitfalls of dealing with the opposite sex, the perils of being financially strapped or the struggles of an MC who couldn’t care less about materialism, the North Carolina star has always cut through with a certain honesty that is laced with a relatable sense of humor.
He’s also found a sweet spot over the course of his 15-year career making grown-man soul music with producer Nicolay as Foreign Exchange while occasionally stopping by as a guest to remind the world that he can still rhyme with the best of them. For that reason, he’s been your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper (ask Drake) and has drawn praise from critics throughout his artistic tenure.
Perhaps nothing is more brutally honest than his latest release, No News Is Good News, which finds the 39-year-old tackling a variety of subjects men of a certain age can relate to, including being happily married, worrying about your health and mortality and, ultimately, existing in a culture where everyone else lives a Peter Pan lifestyle and refuses to grow old.
Billboard sat down with Phonte 24 hours after the surprise release of No News Is Good News to discuss the seven-year wait between solo albums, what being an older artist in hip-hop really looks like, why he decided to keep the album just a shade over 30 minutes, and if we’ll ever see a Little Brother reunion.
It’s been seven years since Charity Starts at Home. What took so long for this album?
It went from famine to feast real quick. The first song I started for the record was “Pastor Tigallo” on June 7th, 2014. And that song wasn’t all the way wrapped up until January 21st of this year. In that time, I also did “To the Rescue,” “Such Is Life,” “Expensive Genes” and “So Help Me God.” And that was just between me getting divorced, getting married again, losing my dad, losing my uncle, losing my granddad, writing for [VH1’s] The Breaks, Questlove Supreme and touring for Foreign Exchange.
Just last month, I had a month off from Questlove Supreme and I didn’t have to travel. So I just took some time to decompress and I was like, “I got the time off, I’m gonna just lock in for like a week, and put this shit to bed.” It was hell week where I was like, “Yo, I’m finishing this shit, hell or high water, I’m not carrying this with me into March.”
The last four songs recorded were “Sweet You,” “Find That Love Again,” “Cry No More” and “Euphorium,” and they were all recorded between February 18th and February 24th. Tall Black Guy finished mixing “Sweet You” on February 25th at around 6 p.m., and Chris Boerner finished mastering the album around 11 p.m. that night. We made it in the nick of time for a March 2nd release.
It was no sleep, no showering and barely even eating. I probably will not do that again. That’s not the preferred method of creation, but you know, that’s how the doughnuts get made.
Chris Brown just released a 40-song album with five bonus tracks, and here you are dropping an album that’s 33 minutes long and took nearly seven years to make. Explain yourself.
It definitely was a statement. I think it kind of became more so of a statement in the wake of cats dropping 50-track albums. We’re at a point in entertainment where you’re no longer playing for people’s dollars as much as you’re playing for their attention. It’s an attention economy.
For me to ask my audience to invest in an album that’s the same length as a feature-length film in 2018 when you have 600 channels on cable, Netflix, Hulu and the entire recorded history of music in your fucking pocket? That’s some pretty arrogant shit. It doesn’t take the audience into consideration.
I said it on Twitter the other night that I make music for people with shit to do. For me, it became more of a statement as the industry changed into this streaming model with artists padding up their albums to get more streams, which then equal more sales. I made it a point to make it brief and say what it is I wanted to say.
It feels like how we view mortality and the things we value as we get older is the overall theme of this album.
Oh man, completely! I finished recording “Such Is Life” around September of 2015. In 2016, I lost my dad and my granddad in the same week. And then I lost my uncle on Thanksgiving day. We had a lot of deaths in hip-hop during that time as well. I turned the record in on Sunday, and then on Wednesday I get a call telling me that my aunt died. She died of cancer at 49. I’m like, “Dude, she’s only 10 years older than me. I’m 39.”
I’m still processing all of this and trying to be happy that the record is out and people are enjoying it. But you’re losing people and you just wanna stay in the house and cry. You know what I mean? Mortality definitely takes on a different meaning, and you get to that point in your life where you realize that I may have more years behind me than I have in front of me. And that just makes you think about a whole lot of shit. I think the older you get, the more you realize just how fragile life really is.
The song that everyone has been talking about is “Expensive Genes.” What was the inspiration for you to write a song that tackles sleep apnea and high blood pressure?
I can’t remember where the phrase came from, but I liked the play on words. I just wrote down that title and thought that it was a pretty good premise for a song. Over time I was thinking about my dad and my family history. Like, having to go to the doctor and get your checkups. And you know, you gotta fill out the whole family history and you realize you gotta check all of the boxes and you realize, “Goddamn, the deck is stacked against me.” That’s where the concept was born out of.
Why do you think getting older in hip-hop has become such a taboo subject?
People tend to forget how young rap is. It’s such a young art form, and this is the first time in history that we’ve actually seen what 40-year-old rappers look like. The culture is still trying to figure out what to do with it. But people are seeing that you can be viable in hip-hop in your 50s and 60s. That wasn’t even a possibility before, but there are now multiple lanes in hip-hop where you can thrive as an artist. It will be interesting to see how hip-hop deals with getting older and still loving rap music.
Everyone has made a big deal out of the maturity that JAY-Z displayed on his 4:44 album, but what he rapped about aren’t necessarily things an average 40-year-old experiences. Infidelity is something that can happen at any age, but deteriorating health and preservation is what 40 really looks like. Why aren’t more people rapping about these subjects?
I don’t have that expectation of other MCs. I just want them to write where they are in their life right now. These are the things that are on my mind at 39, and I figured that I’d write about it. Fifteen years ago, crushing the wack MC was on my mind. The first 10 years of most rappers’ career is all about battling the wack MC, the guy that’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But once you get older, it’s about battling your cholesterol.
The second verse on “Cry No More” seemed like a heavy emotional investment.
That was tough. It was coming to that realization in life where you stop seeing your parents as Mom and Dad and you start to see them as people. They aren’t superhumans; just people who made decisions. Some of them were good and others may have been bad. You start to look at the decisions that their parents made.
You realize that a lot of things that have become tradition in your upbringing were things that may have been really destructive and probably not the best tools to give a person. But those were the only tools that your parents had to work with at that time and it was the best that they had. Now that you are older and wiser, you can raise your son with different tools.
On social media it appeared that people you have been really close to were just as surprised as your fans that an album was coming out. Did they really not know?
I didn’t play it for anybody. I kept it really low because I wanted everybody to hear it. It’s so easy to get jaded and you don’t have many opportunities to really be a fan and have that new-car-smell experience. I wanted everyone to have that experience that something is coming out and nobody has a clue what it’s going to sound like, but we’ll all find out together at midnight.
And now comes the obligatory Little Brother reunion question…
I understand people will always ask for it. Personally, it’s not something that I have interest in doing because I enjoy the peace that’s in my life right now. It’s not something that I have a desire to do in that way. Me, Pooh and 9th are good. They know that anything they need me for, I got them. I could have called Pooh or 9th and asked them to be on every song on this album and they would have done it. I would do the same for them. My main concern is that we are good with each other on a personal level.