This album is the reason why I still have a passion for hip hop, and music in general. Before I heard the first track, before I knew any song titles from the tracklisting, I could sense in my musical soul that Phonte Coleman was going to create an unforgettable piece of art. Is it perfect? I have yet to hear a "perfect" album (even though Songs In The Key Of Life and Illmatic are contenders for that mythical title). Is it flawless? No, because in my selfish realm the one thing I wanted to hear on this album is missing. So exactly what is Charity Starts At Home? It is an aptly titled creation and best album of the year contender (all genres included). So how did I come to this conclusion?
After purchasing this gem at the vaunted Sound Garden in Fells Point a few days after the September 27th release date, I still waited a day before opening the wrapper that enveloped the black and white cover art for Charity Starts At Home. After a brief vocal monologue to open this solo opus, the Swiff D-helmed "Dance In The Reign" starts on a very strong note, with organs seemingly announcing the arrival of Mr. Tiggalo himself. With the angelic Sy Smith providing backing vocals, and Phonte spitting lines like "sex symbol raps you niggas is Pam Grier" and "I've taken the sour grapes of wrath and made Cheerwine", it's evident that this supreme lyricist has one of the sharpest pens in the hip hop world. "The Good Fight", produced by the incomparable 9th Wonder, is another introspective joint in the shared discography of the North Carolina brethren. On this joint, Phonte waxes poetic about a topic many of us can relate to on a daily basis. Just listening to this song, which has a similar lyrical tone to "Last Day/Next Day" from And Justus For All and Getback respectively. This is that facet of Phonte's lyricism that strikes the biggest chord with listeners, because you can envision the portrait this extremely talented brother is painting. "Everything Is Falling Down", featuring new Foreign Exchange voice Jeanne Jolly and produced by extended Justus League and The Soul Council family member Khrysis, discusses how Phonte feels about those non-supportive cats in and out of the hip hop realm. The Elzhi and Phonte collaboration is in full effect (nod to Mantronix) on the 9th-produced "Not Here Anymore", which samples the very familiar Rose Royce classic "Love Don't Live Here Anymore". 9th Wonder laces this joint with his signature touch of soul, allowing Phonte and Elzhi to do what they do best: spit hard-hitting lyrics. This is another winner on Charity Starts At Home. Outside of Rapper Big Pooh, the emcee that has the best lyrical chemistry with Mr. New Tigallo himself is Median, who recently released The Sender on The Foreign Exchange Music imprint. "Eternally", another Patrick Douthit production, is the type of track that allows Median and Phonte the chance to volley lyrics back and forth like seasoned tennis players on a clay court. Changing the pacing of the album slightly is the smoothed-out selection "Sendin My Love", constructed by Stro Elliott. Funny comedian Affion Crockett sets the stage for this joint by letting the listeners know that no matter what a man may have at home, he is still possibly on the prowl for a feminine challenge. I will plead the fifth on that note.
The second half of Charity Starts At Home starts with "Ball And Chain", a choice cut that falls in line with Phonte's musical sensibilities from The Foreign Exchange. Envisioning the song title gives you a glimpse into the subject matter for this song, which was produced by Swiff D. The following selection, "To Be Yours", produced by long-time collaborators and musical brethren Zo! and Phonte, is another song that could easily sit along with other songs from Leave It All Behind or Authenticity. Phonte is as at ease with the romantic as he is with the bombastic, and that is evident with the effortless flow from one realm to another on this album. S1 laced Taygravy with "Gonna Be A Beautiful Night", which also features Carlitta Durand on the beautiful vocals. Here, Mr. Coleman and Ms. Durand get the opportunity to get their Peaches & Herb on, at least for three-plus minutes. A standout on Charity Starts At Home is the Fatin-produced "We Go Off", where Phonte trades metaphorical jabs with lyricist supreme Pharoahe Monch. The aptly titled song allows two of my favorite emcees to lace a fierce beat constructed by The Soul Council alumni, letting those within earshot what North Carolina has cooking. "The Life Of Kings", featuring Evidence (who also released a dope album on September 27th entitled Cats & Dogs) and new Southern hip hop sensation Big K.R.I.T. (who was slated to release his debut album on the same date of September 27th but has been pushed back), allows each of these independent artists to dialogue about their royal status in hip hop, even if it is from the indie level. Each emcee on this final 9th Wonder track on Charity Starts At Home gets the noble opportunity to share with listeners their take on life. If the album ended here, I would be very satisfied, but the icing on the cake is the E. Jones-produced "Who Loves You More", featuring another everyman, Eric Roberson. This is the song that strikes the biggest chord with me, and hopefully other listeners. "I came from the bottom where the guns got withdrawn" is that sentiment I can share with Phonte. He has the uncanny ability to articulate what I may be feeling or thinking at any moment, and does it with the ease not seen in the vast majority of hip hop.
Again, this album is not perfect or flawless. Maybe because I'm biased and selfish, I wanted to hear at least one song with Rapper Big Pooh, or better yet, that long-awaited Little Brother reunion that may never materialize. I apologize for that bias and selfishness Phonte Coleman. What I will say though is that Charity Starts At Home is befitting as an album title, because he took it upon himself to create a masterpiece, not necessarily distancing himself from the legacy of Little Brother, but adding overall to the puzzle that is not only the Justus League, Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange, but hip hop and music as a whole. September 27, 2011 will be etched in my memory as the day that a whole state showed its pride in not only this album, but the very dope creations by J. Cole and 9th Wonder as well. I am glad that Phonte realized that before he could help others, he had to help himself, and Charity Starts At Home is the ultimate self-help guide in hip hop.