Foreign Exchange was made possible by the Internet. Nicolay, a Dutch producer and Phonte, one third of the Little Brother, met on a message board and collaborated via email to create the stellar debut, Connected. They continued this way of creating music with Leave It All Behind and created another critically acclaimed project. On Authenticity, they again build on their previous two projects with the chemistry that garnered them a Grammy nomination and deliver 39 minutes of complex melodies and a distinct sound.
The album opens with “The Last Fall.” It’s a building track in which Nicolay builds around Phonte’s voice beautifully. By the time the drums and keys hit, the mood is in full effect. When Phonte sings, “Never fall in love again,” the listener can feel invested into the music due to the production’s incredible build up. The title track’s drums are reminiscent of early Prince, which in return creates a bit of disappointment when Phonte delivers his vocals. His range, though improved, lets him down on “Authenticity” and a few other places. There are several moments where a more powerful or tender voice would have made the track explode. Listeners may hear this again with higher notes on “Eyes To The Sky” or the extended vocal cadences on “Everything Must Go.”
To cut the suspense, Phonte doesn’t deliver a single bar on the project (October 31 edit: outside of the first single) – further distancing himself from F.E.’s genesis on Connected. As a vocalist, he shows some improvement in variation, despite a limited range. He remains a stellar songwriter, who has a good understanding of melody and feels comfortable over Nicolay’s soulful/jazzy production. “Fight For Your Love” demonstrates this growth. Never short on confidence, Phonte delivers an impressive vocal over some of the best production of the album. This project can’t be mistaken for Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak singing attempts. Phonte has found another career with Foreign Exchange, and his singing ability is a huge part of it.
The highlight of the project might be “Laughing At Your Plans.” The song itself teeters more towards the Norah Jones Adult Contemporary world, but to put it simply, the track is beautiful. It’s one of the more stripped down tracks on the album, which allows the listener to see how talented of a vocalist Phonte truly is. Single “Maybe She’ll Think of Me” features top-notch songwriting. Lyrics like, “Wondering if a face that wears a smile like yours has ever heard a no before” has artists and songwriters regretting those words didn’t come from their pen. Authenticity‘s final track, “This City Ain’t The Same Without You” highlights new Foreign Exchange imprint artist Yahzahara. It’s not hard to imagine this song popping up in a movie somewhere, because of its ability to create and sustain a mood.
From their creation, Foreign Exchange pushed the boundaries of Hip Hop. Now they’ve punfully left it all behind. Although several emcee guests appear, much of Phonte’s songwriting vernacular pulls him away from Hip Hop altogether here. That’s not a bad thing, just suggestive of further evolution. Nic’s melodic beats have always tip toed the line of R&B and Hip Hop and Phonte has used The Foreign Exchange to showcase his passion for singing. On Authenticity, the only line that Foreign Exchange toes is the line between R&B and Adult Alternative. Phonte relies on melodies in lieu of flow, while Nicolay produces a smoky Vocal Jazz album. Longtime fans of Phonte the lyricist may not get what they’re expecting, but that’s not to say they won’t find satisfaction. Foreign Exchange experimented here, and the group with digital roots has developed their sound organically. Authenticity doesn’t revolutionize any genre, but it does telegraph the direction that the duo is going.
Editor’s Note: We apologize for the initial wording in the first sentence of the third paragraph.