Since the success of their landmark hip-hop album Connected back in ’04, mountains have moved for Phonte and Nicolay of The Foreign Exchange: they have released two more albums (Authenticity being their third and mostly highly anticipated), the Dutch beatmaster Nicolay has moved to North Carolina, they have established their own label, banked a Grammy nomination, and evolved from a peripheral hip-hop entity into a full fledged accolade machine up to their knees in R&B crossover water. Authenticity picks up and moves forward from where +FE  last left off with their sophomore album Leave It All Behind, which affirmed not only the duo’s self-confidence and willingness to take an artistic turn, but also their chops as a R&B duo. Having moved forward and fully settled into their skin (and ours), Authenticity sounds so mature and natural that it seems less important to discuss what this music is, than +FE’s extraordinary ability to intertwine their ideas and sounds together, which they demonstrate with notable fluidity here. Over Authenticity‘s eleven carefully crafted R&B tracks, Phonte and Nicolay paint dark and foreboding clouds overhead as they delve straight into the thick of love’s destructiveness and impossibility, a welcomed thematic bleed over from Leave it All Behind. Yet with pointed focus on themes of taking responsibility and being honest with yourself, Authenticity differs because it is more about getting real than starting anew.

The real isn’t always pretty, but that is no excuse to hide from it. The stunningly vulnerable “This City Ain’t the Same Without You” showcases +FE’s ability to capture the feeling of emptiness as the heartbroken songbird YahZarah shares a familiar story of rejection, being left behind, and refusing to let go. What makes the song particularly touching, is her solemn acknowledgement that her disposition is not only sore but also self-inflicted: “I was waiting for your invitation/Thinking you would send one… And I’ve only got myself to blame/For painting these skies with your name.” To be authentic to yourself can mean having the strength to recognize when pain is self-inflicted, whereas being authentic to someone else may require an awareness of how our sometimes well-meaning behavior may damage others:  “You ask me for the whole truth/But for that you’re not prepared/Refuse to be your enemy/Your fantasies I will spare,” says Phonte in the title track “Authenticity.” Because the truth can be equally as disillusioning as the world’s largest lie, getting to the root of Authenticity requires admitting that authenticity can never exist.

There are also more lighthearted moments, like the optimistic “Maybe She’ll Dream of Me,” (which holds the only rap from Phonte on the album) and inspiring “Don’t Wait!” which both capture the punch-drunk electricity between two people that click, and the savory excitement that swells when it’s all up in the air. Other sunny moments are bore sonically through Nicolay’s arrangements that weave unexpected turnpikes and morph through elided rhythms and sounds that even multiple listens cannot old hat. In a similar way that Hi-Tek sometimes does, Nicolay puts his own spin on songs by tagging on contrasting extended outros once the vocals have wrapped up. “Don’t Make Me a Fool,” for instance, ends beatless and dripping in modulating pitches, adding on an unmistakably dark and foreboding twist that reveals something ugly beneath the overly lighthearted (but such intended) tone of Phonte’s pleas: “If I ever lost this feeling heaven knows what I’d do/And I’m not asking you to be an angel/Just don’t ever make me a fool.” Lay’s dark ending sounds like a warning. If you resort to begging your “significant” other to spare you from their inevitable wrath, then you really are a fool.

The album showcases Nicolay’s abilities as a producer well, as there are moments that are straight-up extremely well-written and creative, like the thirty second percussive and violin adorned pizzicato swell at the beginning of “Everything Must Go” that captures perfectly the fleeting, impulsive nature of the song’s raison d’etre. Authenticity also showcases Nicolay’s penchant for composing thematically rich albums. Past +FE records have had “intra-album” musical quotations that create a sense of thematic cohesion (the syncopated hook of “Day Keeper” from Leave It All Behind for instance resurfaces later on that album in “Valediction” at 1:06 in duple time), but in Authenticity, Nicolay makes a really striking “trans-album” thematic connection: the distinctive swelling orb-like sound that opens “The Last Fall”  (the first track of Authenticity) is sampled verbatim from LIAB’s “Day Keeper;” but just as Phonte’s love-drunk “She Loves Me” vocals tide to mind, a thick and abrasive chromatically descending synth line wipes away the sun just as quickly as it came, sound painting the here and now storm that lives beneath Phonte’s complacent vocals: “Wanna scream wanna curse wanna cry/But I’m too numb to care.”  “Last Fall” is a stunning album opener that demands your full attention—and you’ll want to give it.

Due to its pop-like instrumentation and rhythmic boxiness, the almost corny “Laughing At Your Plans” with vocals from Chantae Cann is the only sore thumb on the album, but even that track has merit in its lyrical and instrumental contrast. It sounds carefree, until you actually dig into the imagery-evoking tale of parental estrangement she unfolds: “and when he smiles/they say he looks just like you/just walkin’ around like the world is his stage/cause that’s all a young man can do/when his hero’s not around.” It’s like Chantae is sharing with us the little sugar she has left to keep her going.

Their ability to make even the most hapless and mundane realities beautiful, has made +FE one of the more captivating groups in both hip-hop and R&B, yet that is not the only reason Authenticity was one of the more highly anticipated albums of 2010. For many, Authenticity would be a test of +FE’s ability to further transition from hip-hop to R&B while appeasing their existing fan base and garnering new ones. Have they succeeded? Musically, yes. Phonte and Nicolay have evolved into something entirely different yet equally musically outstanding while managing to keep a tight grip on the pearls that made them so stand-out six years and three albums ago; the pearls being none other than Nicolay and YahZarah, who have remained +FE’s most stable sonic elements throughout Phonte’s transition from rapping to singing.  Lay’s distinctive rounded synth sounds and funky rhythms against YZ’s irresistibly silky smooth vocals that fill out the feminine side of their stories are by now well-loved and steadfast +FE traits. Still a variable, however, is the versatile Phonte, who has been the most unpredictable agent of change for +FE as he vocally directs the group’s course deeper over R&B waters, and in so doing, leaves behind the hip hop island of Connected as a mere speck on the horizon.

As easy as it is to enjoy and fully appreciate the new direction +FE has taken, there will be nostalgic (yet dedicated) passengers who can’t just look back on the island and remember it for what it was– passengers who will want to jump off the boat and swim back there for more. Yet that doesn’t mean the journey ahead doesn’t promise to be spectacular, or even better. Phonte’s singing is great. Authenticity is an excellent album. But at the end of the day, for anyone unwilling to give up hope on a take two of the immaculate and breezy hip-hop chemistry of Connected, Authenicity is merely a beautiful stepping stone on a path you can only hope will take you home.

-Kara-Lis Coverdale

Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of the original post.