"I think this one is going to be über up your alley." For a contrarian critic, more ominous words were never spoken. That they came from the management of the Grammy-nominated, North Carolina-based electro-soul collective, The Foreign Exchange (+FE), only gave me further pause. Considering I'd never given a project from +FE a negative review (though I have kvetched a time or two about Phonte's wavering sense of pitch and privately declared that their Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange doesn't hold a candle to their actual live show), I couldn't help but wonder if this time would be different. Had Raleigh's dynamic duo of rapper/singer Phonte and Dutch producer/arranger, Nicolay, finally made an album that I'd hate?
So far for 2013, the prodigal sons and their small record label that could have been on something of a roll. A double-disc remix project, The ReWorks, easily soared over most first quarter releases and remains one of the most exciting event projects of the year. The much anticipated single producer compilation release, ManMade, by keyboardist/producer Zo! of the +FE, was the belle of the spring season. Their previous three studio releases, 2004's Connected, 2010's Authenticity, and their perfect neo-classic, 2008's Leave It All Behind (LIAB), have won them international fandom, a Grammy nomination for "DayKeeper (featuring Muhsinah)" from LIAB, and at least one Top 25 R&B charter in Authenticity. Other independent studio releases and mixtapes from their musical family, including projects from Median, YahZarah, Jeanne Jolly, Chantae Cann, and Darien Brockington, and solo outings from both Phonte and Nicolay, the core and founders of +FE, have been a series of hits and misses. Still even with the swing and misses, never could it be said the recordings weren't stamped with the outfit's signature sound and soulful polish. Even the highly polarizing Authenticity (I'm pro #TeamAuthenticity, BTW) with its unrelenting melancholia and brutal honesty was nothing less than brilliant in its arrangements and productions.
House manifests itself differently on 'Love In Flying Colors' and 'Yeezus'
Chicago house is experiencing an art-pop resurgence entirely separate from whatever warmed-over elements of the sound still sneak into EDM these days. Along with Kanye West's Yeezus, which skronks and fizzles like acid purveyors Phuture (the Chi-town-ian beats provided by French house inverters, Daft Punk), there is Nine Inch Nails' Hesitation Marks, an apocalyptic get-down fueled by rigid, vicious Midwestern rhythms. These releases are reminding keyed-in, geeked-up listeners of just how raw house music can get.
Popular music often seems to mind its own checks and balances, grabbing hold of some ineffable something in the zeitgeist and then breaking that zeitgeist over its knee and starting the next trend before the other trend is even over, so now we're experiencing a kicking back against that recontexualization of house as relentless mean-mug. The highlight of rapper Le1f's Tree House mixtape, released last week, is a track called "Jack" that splits the difference between the hard and soft elements of Chicago house -- fitting for an erotic seduction song equal parts explicit and demure. And this week, electronic R&B duo Phonte Coleman and Nicolay Rook, better known as the Foreign Exchange, resurrect the warm, inviting elements of house on their fourth album, Love In Flying Colors.
N.C.-based electronic R&B duo has a brand-new album out.
"I never thought in genres and my mom never did. I guess that's where I get it."
So said Nicolay, a native of Utrecht, The Netherlands, and a Wilmington resident for more than five years now. Nicolay is a music producer, solo artist and one half of Grammy-nominated R&B, hip-hop and electronic duo the Foreign Exchange, whose new album, "Love in Flying Colors," was released Tuesday, debuting at No. 2 in R&B/soul on iTunes.
Over coffee recently, Nicolay politely stressed that putting music in a box annoys him.
"I like music that is hard to grasp," he said. "You could call it this (or) you could call it that."
Track from The Foreign Exchange's fourth studio album Love In Flying Colors, in stores now on +FE Music.
"THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE - RIGHT AFTER MIDNIGHT feat. SY SMITH" LISTEN
Lead vocals: Phonte
Background vocals: Sy Smith & Phonte
Guitar: Chris Boerner
All other instruments: Nicolay
Produced by Phonte and Nicolay for The Foreign Exchange Music, LLC
Not to rehash old stuff, but your thoughts on Love in Flying Colors will likely be based on when you first became aware of R&B/hip-hop duo of "rapper-turnt-singer"/artist Phonte Coleman and "North Carolina by way of the Netherlands" producer/instrumentalist Nicolay. Their solid 2004 debut, Connected, is still largely slotted into the "alternative hip-hop" category, while follow-ups Leave It All Behind and Authenticity arguably lean heavily on the R&B side of the equation. This has created a dedicated yet outspoken fanbase with collective thoughts on, and expectations of, how the perfect Foreign Exchange album should sound. Ultimately, Foreign Exchange are about creating their music their way -- Love in Flying Colors continues along this wavelength. Smoothly romantic lead single "Call It Home" sounds like a long-lost Connected track updated for 2013. Standout numbers like "When I Feel Love," featuring Jeanne Jolly, "Right After Midnight," featuring Sy Smith, and "If I Knew Then," featuring Carmen Rodgers, highlight the group's progressive soul sound while bringing FE+Music lablemates and friends along for the ride. "The Moment" is a cool, but ordinary dance-type number; however, "Listen to the Rain" is, in a word, beautiful, and the best illustration of Phonte's heightened vocal mastery to date. Love in Flying Colors is a solid and consistent album -- the "turnt" label assigned to Phonte (ex of North Carolina hip-hop crew Little Brother) is a bit unfair, as he's grown impressively as a vocalist and this is his coming out party, in terms of how he's developed and crafted a remarkably smooth singing style. Layered overtop of Nicolay's ever-evolving yet signature "electro-soul" sound, Love in Flying Colors is steeped in an honest, vulnerable lyricism bolstered by dreamy, feel-good synth vibes regarding the complex emotion called love and all it represents.
A series of successful, calculated musical risks push The Foreign Exchange to new heights on Love In Flying Colors.
Ever since a series of e-mail exchanges between North Carolina-based emcee Phonte of Little Brother and the eclectic, Dutch producer Nicolay introduced the world to The Foreign Exchange, fans have grown accustomed to a brand of Hip Hop where lyrical prowess meets digital masterpiece. But as any Hip Hop head will tell you, the genre is in a constant state of evolution.
The Foreign Exchange's success is largely built on this principle, taking underground Hip Hop and blending it with the soothing sounds of piano chords and keyboard solos that drift in and out in-between the familiar snare hits and high hat clicks. The duo's latest project, Love In Flying Colors, uses this formula as its base, but pushes the boundaries at every given opportunity, welcoming an increased computerized presence and a much heavier reliance on R&B-infused vocals from Phonte.
Though it's been three years since the last album of all-new material from The Foreign Exchange, solo projects and albums from other members of the +FE crew have filled the interim nicely -- not to mention their live set Dear Friends. However, there's nothing like when Phonte and Nicolay come together to bring us their unique, world-traveled brand of R&B. But, with such a long break between projects and a proliferation of material, it's easy for fans to wonder if that magic that once was has been lost. So, with all that said, what's to be expected when you take a listen to their latest effort, Love In Flying Colors?
Let me just say that if you doubted the quality that FE would bring to this project, you were sorely mistaken. Like each of their previous efforts, Love In Flying Colors is a melting pot of R&B and soul that transcends the manufactured dreck found in much of mainstream R&B. It sets out of the gate running with "If I Knew Then," which features Dallas singer Carmen Rodgers. Reminiscent of the work that FE's Nicolay did with his City Lights series, the track moves quickly with a refreshing, progressive sound as Phonte and Carmen harmonize beautifully. Keeping the momentum going, frequent collaborator Sy Smith sits in for "Right After Midnight," a funky little jam that mixes a bit of the '80s with a bit of international flair. "Better" is the album's first standout, however. It's bass bump and piano-led groove is sure to get your head nodding, but it's the way that the vocalists -- in this case Phonte, Shana Tucker and Eric Roberson -- work so well together. Don't be surprised if it's named the next single.
The '80's sound returns for "On a Day Like Today" before they slow down for "Listen to the Rain." As the title suggests, it's a melancholy melody about recovering from heartache and Phonte does the lyrics justice, revealing a vulnerability he doesn't always show. It's the perfect set up for the album's lead single "Call It Home," perhaps the song most synonymous with the sound we've come to know and love from the crew. But, just when you start to get comfortable, they try out just a small bit of house for jam "The Moment," which is sure to get toes tapping and bodies moving with its infectious groove. It's further proof that the crew can do more than just make mellow R&B, but can also switch it up now and then and do something a bit unexpected.
The title of the fourth Foreign Exchange album is so corny that the back cover might as well show Nicolay and Phonte, together with their dozen-plus associates, leaping over an airstrip with ear-to-ear grins. Once the serene strings on the closing "When I Feel Love" fade out, it's clear the title is absolutely descriptive, as the prevailing mood deeply contrasts with that of the racked Authenticity. If there is a bridge between the two albums, it's third track "Better," in which Phonte rhymes matrimony with acrimony and sings of being healed. Second to that is chamber folk-soul ballad "Listen to the Rain," where Phonte is overwhelmed, "lost inside this pain," but that segues into the speedy drum'n'bass ballad "Call It Home," where the spirit starts to lift and turbulence is counteracted with optimism: "Sunny days are rare/But I'd follow you almost anywhere." Otherwise, from "Feels so good, love's flying high" -- Carmen Rodgers' invigorated chorus on opener "If I Knew Then" -- to the blissful duet finale featuring Jeanne Jolly, Love in Flying Colors is about the rush and delight of falling in love. As usual, almost all of the instrumentation is performed by Nicolay. The uptempo tracks of his City Lights, Vol. 2 were something of a warning flare, though the bright synthesizer-laced grooves here are a little funkier and more musical. "Right After Midnight" is prime modern boogie, while "The Moment," the best track Blaze never made, is soulful house hotter than +FE Music: The Reworks highlight "So What If It Is." Phonte, who has developed into an exceptional singer, is supported by several co-lead and background vocalists used in a variety of imaginative ways. Each guest appearance is worthy of mention, but Gwen Bunn's entry -- for the last verse of broken beat throwback "Can't Turn Around" -- adds a jolt like no other. In 2013, it takes a certain level of bravery to make R&B this open-hearted, joyous, and musical. U.K. acts like 4hero, New Sector Movements, and Bugz in the Attic were doing it in the early 2000s, but none of them put it together quite like this, in one concentrated shot, with the songwriting on the same high level as the productions and arrangements. This crew is elite.
Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 7:00 PM
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