It was likely at some point while working on their first album Connected (2004) that Phonte of Little Brother and Netherlands producer Nicolay realized they were far too compatible to keep their creative partnership long distance. What became instantly lauded as the distinctive sound of Foreign Exchange was actually conceived and chiseled online, where the two hooked up and started making music via file-exchange over the chatboards at Okayplayer.com.
The idea that collaborative music making and recording didn’t actually require involved parties to ever meet, at least not in the physical, was clearly still a novel concept in 2004 (“Foreign Exchange” is to hip-hop as “Postal Service” is to indie electro-pop). But this mode of working has actually become the norm for musicians of all stripes, the Fly Lo and Thom Yorke collaboration on Cosmogamma for instance, as we progress deeper into the digital epoch. As Nicolay said in a 2007 interview, “this is how people in the underground work, even domestically.”
Though FE still do most of their work online since it’s “easier, cheaper, etc…,” Lay moved to North Carolina to work with Phonte in the flesh for on their sophomore release, Leave It All Behind (2008). Though still quintessentially Foreign Exchange in sound concept, the result was a very different album both musically and vocally because Phonte nixed the rapping for which he became so accredited for during the Little Brother era. Instead he pours out smooth and melodic vocals that seem to notch inside Lay’s sound-beds rather than overlaying them. The musical advantage then, is that Phonte plays a part in developing (and complementing) the intricate melodies that arise from Lay’s beats, resulting in a much more conversational sound tapestry.
Little Brother fans who appreciate–and even prefer–Phonte the rapper would be hard pressed to find a smoother carrier for his verses (all respects to 9th Wonder), which made Conntected such a great record. So, yes. We all notice and to an degree even lament the conspicuous absence of Tay’s flow on this album.
Yet any attempt at trying to answer the question of which is better– the rapped format of Connected, or the sung album Leave it All Behind, however, is to miss the point entirely: both are musically outstanding. With productions constructed from live instrumentation (guitars, bass, and analog synths), Nicolay lends a sample-dominated genre a whole new sonic vocabulary. His creative frequency dialing will have you recalling entire soundscapes and their distinct timbral qualities rather than rhythm and arrangements (though these are notably well crafted, too).
Lyrically, Phonte has always been a heart-on-sleeve romantic, but Leave it All Behind elaborates more fully and explicitly the doctrine of affections by articulating love’s highs and lows in a way that effortlessly map onto your own memories, and for better or worse, the stories of well known faces they contain. Some may call that generic writing, but the music is so fresh that the cliches (“I love you for loving me…”) -if you must call them that- go down like a much needed cocktail at the end of the day.
A preference for Connected over Leave it All Behind or vice versa (the latter was more harshly received by critics) is thus not a question of whether one album is more artistically creative or well-crafted than the other. The opinion is, rather, contingent on the genre and thematic preference of the person who makes it. Leave It All Behind is definitely is not the tough guy’s soundtrack, after all. It’s more about shaking the act and getting real with someone. Anyone.
Now perhaps best described as a hip-hop soul duo with a whole lot of clout, their third album Authenticity hits stores on October 12th on the label Foreign Exchange Music.
If the first single “Maybe She’ll Dream of Me” featuring Phonte both singing and rapping over a synth-driven beat is any indication of FE’s next direction, this track suggests fans might get a mix of both sun and clouds. And if the title Authenticity holds weight, regardless of its artistic direction, we can in the least expect that Foreign Exchange have made another album that is distinctively theirs. As Phonte says, “the biggest challenge as a musician is to find that “thing” that makes you who you are. But I think we’re getting there, and we’re finding our way there more and more with each record.”
01. The Last Fall
03. Eyes To The Sky
04. All Roads
05. Fight For Love
06. Maybe She’ll Dream Of Me
07. Don’t Wait
08. Make Me A Fool
09. Everything Must Go
10. Laughing At Your Plans
11. This City Ain’t The Same Without You