"Foreign Exchange Meet to Tour" was the headline after the release of Connected. MC Phonte of North Carolina's Little Brother and the Amsterdam-based producer Nicolay did, in fact, meet before they headed out on tour, but it's true that they recorded their debut without having ever met. It's a unique story in that it doesn't inform the music so much as it does technology's potential to render such spatial issues irrelevant.
In other words, no one is going to listen to Connected and think, "Damn! They're doing this on two different continents?" Still, their respective hometowns are pretty evident: Phonte's conscious struggle is informed by Southern roots music, and Nicolay's shimmering techno beats couldn't come from this side of the Atlantic. But that music is the real draw here, and it is soulful and beautiful, with enough challenging vocal and production material to give it some bite.
Phonte is a star waiting to happen inside a group that also includes Big Pooh and of-the-moment producer 9th Wonder (who produced Murs's critically acclaimed 3:16 earlier this year). The rapper provides a voice that's somewhere between Mos Def and Common (when they both still liked rapping) and a point of view that hovers somewhere between the different emcee stereotypes.
"Raw Life" is his first chance to shine on the album, since the first two tracks are dedicated to setting the mood. He rips up both his battle-track verses over a beat reminiscent of the Roots' "Step into the Realm," only better (describing most tracks on Connected as "[insert good rap song] only better" works pretty well actually). "Be Alright" attempts to relieve stress, as Phonte claims he's "feeling pains in my torso now/ I scream, 'Fuck the world'/ but Mother Nature's takin' Ortho now/ tryin' to regulate her stress and pain also now."
Despite great contributions from Nicolay and Phonte, the album isn't just a collaboration between two people. Along with 9th Wonder mixing the vocals, D.C.'s Yahzarah lends her beautiful voice to the proceedings, most notably on "Foreign Exchange Title Theme" and "Foreign Exchange End Theme." Various other guests make excellent appearances; Big Pooh is on enough songs to make the purchase worth it for Little Brother fans (of which there will be a lot more once The Minstrel Show drops next year).
Despite the clear hip-hop presence, you shouldn't be misled; I would compare Foreign Exchange to Blue States before 50 Cent. This is warm, jazz-styled music that breeds contemplative moments rather than impromptu dance parties. The album cover should tip you off: Think hot tea, not cold Crystal. Connected won't disappoint those looking for an album that doesn't follow independent hip-hop but really is is independent hip-hop.