Because of the Internet’s omnipotent networking potential, in 2004 North Carolina-based MC Phonte established a creative kinship swapping tracks via Instant Messenger with Holland-based producer Nicolay. They became Foreign Exchange, an eclectic side project separate from Phonte’s work with Hip Hop group Little Brother and Nicolay’s signature Drum and Bass mixes. Though their debut, Connected, manifested online, Phonte’s sinuous rhymes conjoined with Nicolay’s dusky down-tempo grooves so naturally that the time-zone difference was undetectable.
Foreign Exchange’s 2008 follow-up, Leave It All Behind, has Connected’s chemistry, and although Nicolay now lives in North Carolina, they continue to swap meet over the ‘Net. The difference this time — Phonte doesn’t rap. Singing in mid-range and falsetto, he and longtime recording alum Darien Brockington do three-part harmonies with female vocalists Musinah and Yazarah that invoke sensuality into Nicolay’s shadowy minor-chord arrangements.
“The music went into a direction where singing was just a more natural thing to do,” Nicolay explained late last year upon the album’s release.
Blink or forget to read the liner notes and you’ll almost miss that they cover Stevie Wonder’s “If She Breaks Your Heart” (one of Phonte’s favorite songs) from the soundtrack to Jungle Fever, which Nicolay spit-polishes like new, stripping it of its outmoded New Jack Swing drum tracking. The bouncy, Bilal-ish “Something to Behold” features newcomer Musinah, an abstruse voice to the masses but one that Phonte listened to on MySpace for hours before inviting her to appear on the first single “Daykeeper” and again on “House of Cards.” Be on the lookout for more of her work.
The album’s direction shows Phonte’s growth as a songwriter and Foreign Exchange’s emphasis on theme, which gives head-nodders a chance to become active listeners. For one, there’s an elliptical way the “It” in the title leaves you hanging. Guesses for what’s left behind are Phonte’s Hip Hop career, laggard mindsets and failed relationships, but any guess is a fair one because Nicolay and Phonte purposely left “it” up to interpretation.
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