During a recent trip to visit my father, he shared with me something quite profound. “These days, I’m realizing that the true measure of happiness is the ability to laugh at yourself,” he said. While I doubt that Phonte Coleman (half of Durham’s beloved Little Brother) and my pops had the same conversation, I’ll be damned if Phonte hasn’t somehow picked up on the philosophy. On Zo! and Tigallo Love the ’80s, a collaboration with Detroit musician Zo!, Phonte laughs himself across hip-hop semi-stardom by revisiting the follies of ’80s synth-silly chart toppers. Phonte’s obviously killing some time in between the release of Little Brother’s Getback and the upcoming Foreign Exchange: Leave It All Behind, his second full-length collaboration with the Wilmington-via-The Netherlands producer Nicolay.
Normally, you’d probably scoff at the idea of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” being retouched with the T-Pain treatment, but when Phonte does it in the same autotune style, it qualifies as a grand opera. Normally, if The Human League’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis 1986 single, “Human,” pops up on the karaoke machine, it’s all sing-along and giggles and goofy times. But when Phonte and Carlitta Durand redo it, it’s an epic, romantic confessional. Normally, you’d immediately dismiss any absurd act like an emcee trying to remake Toto’s 1982 “Africa,” but when Phonte does it with ease and elegance, you smile. They even raise Level 42’s 1985 smash, “Something About You,” to the point where you’re likely to prefer the update.
Point being, these days it seems like this guy Phonte can get away with whatever he wants to: His mic-likeability has peaked beyond objectivity. No matter what he attaches his name to, he turns it into musical memorabilia. With a Zo! and Tigallo Love the ’90s LP rumored to be in the making, these two are really taking this throwback thing seriously. Phonte has said this ’80s album isn’t a “joke” album, but from the looks of the cover art, he has definitely set himself up for a few good grins. If there was any truth to what my dad told me, Phonte will probably be laughing right along with everyone else.