In 2010, it’s not terribly bizarre to learn that a musical act has created its latest track or album by sending tracks through e-mail or an instant-messaging service. But when singer-rapper Phonte Coleman and producer Nicolay joined forces via the infamous OkayPlayer boards in 2004, this method of creating music was basically unheard of. But because of the distance between them – Phonte resides in North Carolina and Nicolay in the Netherlands – these two basically had no other option. As such, they dubbed themselves the Foreign Exchange and crafted their widely heralded debut, Connected, with both names being a clear play on their situation. And on that record, the duo and their guests showcased an organic yet electronic take on soul-infused hip-hop. It was such a natural sound and pairing that Nicolay and Phonte realized they had something special on their hands.
Enter sophomore effort, Leave It All Behind, which dropped in late 2008 and slightly referred to how the producer himself left his life behind and moved to North Carolina. With the two of them living nearby, they could record together in the studio and allow for an even truer interaction. That led to their second album showing a greater feat of songwriting and production, both handled by Nicolay and Phonte. True collaboration might be important in any given recording session, but here it took on a new life because Phonte was ready to show the world his vocal chops. Across the entirety of Leave It All Behind he spit two verses. The rest he crooned with a sincere, honest tone, like an old-school R&B/soul-man with some help from full-time singers Yahzarah, Darien Brockington, and Muhsinah. Together, they made such a mark that even the Grammy’s nomination panel took notice and put “Daykeeper” up for Best Urban/Alternative Performance in 2009. Sure, those awards might not mean much to some, but considering the Foreign Exchange’s opponents – acts like India.Arie (who won) and others – it meant a lot. So much, in fact, that Phonte put recording his solo debut on hold to get back in the studio with Nicolay to create their third album, Authenticity.
Questions of what would come from this time in the studio soon arose as fans and critics recognized how Leave It All Behind was vastly different from its predecessor both musically and lyrically. Sure, both shared touches of electronic and soul music with love-driven sentiments. But Connected was much more a rap album as Leave It All Behind was steeped in soul and R&B. One quick spin through Authenticity, or even its singles, will show that the Foreign Exchange has moved toward a more live-band sound; the keyboards, drums, and guitars play a prominent role musically. Part of the reason for that is the inclusion of multi-instrumentalist Zo!, who played on several tracks here and co-produced one.
Anyone aware of Zo!’sbackground knows he has a tendency for the more lush, neo-’80s R&B sound, which makes its way into portions of Authenticity. There’s also a clear progression of the synth-laden, almost video game-esque instrumentation heard on Nicolay’s 2009 album, City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya. This can be heard particularly on Authenticity highlights “All Roads,” a track filled with layers of nostalgia-inducing keys, and “Everything Must Go,” which rides a rolling piano-line and waves of guitar feedback. It’s a lush, all-encompassing sound that Nicolay has clearly perfected.
What’s especially different on here, though, is that the resulting vibe is much more reserved and doubtful — this being quite a change from the previous efforts’ air of hope. While the production has a hand in crafting that sound, it’s Phonte’s lyrics and delivery that drive the point home. There are flashes of hope, though. Lead single “Maybe She’ll Dream of Me,” which boasts his only rapped verse, is an upbeat love affair. And its follow-up track “Don’t Wait,” offers the advice: “If someone loves you back, don’t get in the way/ Don’t hold it back, don’t wait.” But even these more positive-based sentiments are delivered with thoughts of uncertainty, which shape brooding, love-questioning anthems “Fight For Love” and “This City Ain’t The Same Without You.” And when paired with Nicolay’s darker instrumentation, these tracks become especially moving and poignant
What Phonte, Nicolay, and their guests have created with Authenticity is an honest look at love and the wide range of emotions that comes with it. That might be a subject that’s been covered to death, but the Foreign Exchange offer a refreshing take, particularly in the realm of R&B where sex-drenched club joints have become the focus. This is an album that provides a well-rounded look at the different aspects of a relationship, especially the reservations of falling in love again. For that reason alone, it’s a record to which anyone with a romantic history can relate. Beyond that, Authenticity is a concise, cohesive effort that finds the Foreign Exchange again successfully pushing the boundaries of R&B, soul, electronic music, and hip-hop.