It seems that ever since their debut album The Listening [click to read], every Little Brother [click to read] album has seen them having to make notable adaptations to their formula. Sophomore disc The Minstrel Show [click to read] saw them trying to fit their indie stylings into a major label system, and their latest LP, Get Back, saw them working without their former in-house producer, 9th Wonder [click to read]. Even the group members' individual projects have seen them switching it up: Rapper Big Pooh [click to read], who's widely considered as the less prominent half of the duo, went for self on Sleepers. Connected saw Phonte team up with Dutch producer Nicolay [click to read] to form The Foreign Exchange and create an entire album through the Internet. Phonte's more recent solo project saw him working with producer Zo! to cover several hit songs from the '80s.
So this time around, Phonte and Nicolay have decided to change things up from the get-go. Nicolay has moved to North Carolina to work with Phonte more closely. And in case you haven't heard, Foreign Exchange's Leave It All Behind isn't a Hip Hop album. Aside from two sixteen-bar verses, Phonte Coleman virtually abandons his sharp, whimsical rhymes in favor of singing. Still, as they've shown previously, variations are where the intercontinental-turned-stateside duo does its best work.
The clear headliner of Leave It All Behind is Nicolay. The Dutch producer contributes soundbeds that are just as relaxing as they are stirring, and transitional change-ups between songs give the disc even more cohesion. While this may not be a big surprise to those familiar with the musical tastes of Phonte and Nicolay, it's still impressive how much the album strays from their Hip Hop catalogs. Sonically, virtually any song from Leave It All Behind would seamlessly fit into the rotations of any radio station's "Quiet Storm" or smooth Jazz segments. Tracks like "Take Off The Blues" and "Wanna Know" pair melodic keys and coos with thumping basslines, while "If This Is Love" incorporate elements of house music to give a mildly-frenetic bounce to Foreign Exchange's soulful sound.
Phonte is more or less along for the ride on this album, with Nicolay's stealing the show. But he still does a notable job of holding up his end of the bargain. While listeners familiar with his singing on previous songs from his various collaborative LPs or his choruses for acts like Playaz Circle [click to read] may be less surprised, intermediate fans' eyebrows will raise at how capable of a vocalist Phonte is. Don't get it twisted: he definitely doesn't pose the vast multi-octave threat that more established crooners do. But he still finds and holds the notes needed to mesh with Nicolay's subdued soundbeds, and brings in guest vocalists to fill in whatever blanks he'd leave. His lyrics feel genuine, as well: the upbeat standout "Something To Behold" sees him, Darien Brockington and Muhsinah using allegorical gems to profess love for significant others, while "All Or Nothing-I'm Coming Home To You" flawlessly simulates an argument between Phonte and wifey. Those familiar with Phonte's relationship views and musical appreciation on skits and songs like Little Brother's "Step Your Game Up" will be pleased to see that he can give even further introspection and credence to his personality here.
Absences of some of Phonte's trademarks may disappoint some. Despite his capable singing, rapping is definitely Phonte's strong suit, and it's disappointing that he doesn't rhyme more than he does. Plus, Phonte's comical musings from previous efforts--the "baby do you want a massage" quip on "Step Your Game Up"--is notably minimal here, perhaps to make the project seem more mature, or to just offer a different feel in general. Still, the positives here easily outweigh the negatives. Expectations for such established acts are understandable, but if you can leave them all behind, The Foreign Exchange's new disc is a satisfying effort.