Being in love is like being underwater. All outside noise is dulled; all light is ethereal. But, when isolated, your lover's dulcet voice can be deceptive, and that shimmering light can be marred by pockets of shadows.
The Foreign Exchange's latest album, Authenticity, is a love letter, but one told in reverse, and one that sees no point in sparing feelings. That's no surprise. Phonte Coleman, one half of The Foreign Exchange and one third of the now-dissolved North Carolinian hip-hop group Little Brother, has always been about truth in verses. After all, his raps told of a broke college grad with a record deal who can only afford to take his date to Applebee's, not some typical (and typically untrue) blunts-n-broads braggadocio.
Producer Nicolay's beats have always conjured the smoked-out smooth ambience of his native Netherlands, but this album finds him exploring further, becoming not only more diverse, but also more sophisticated. As demonstrated in the Prince-inspired electro-pop of the standout title track, a heavy rock influence has darkened their sky. Phonte echoes Nicolay's foreboding turn lyrically as well, singing, "If you could see into the future, love/And all the hell we have in store ... You don't want truth from me/You just want what you want."
But Phonte's voice is soft-pedaled, cushioning the blow of his words. A bell rings through the watery reverberations of opening track, "The Last Fall," directing you towards the light not of warm salvation, but of cold truth. "Love is at worst an excuse/At best it's a truce/So what is the use? I'm never gonna love again." The statement is bitterly imperative, but he slips on a velvet glove to deliver the punch.
It's not until midway through, when the album's heavy heart begins tripping backwards towards the first flush of love, that the duo revisits their signature sound. Breakups suck, which could be why Nicolay's happy synth keyboards and Phonte's easy vocal two-steppin' elicit a sigh of relief.
"Don't Wait," featuring frequent collaborator Darien Brockington, probably has the best hook, musically and lyrically, of the entire record. It's also easily the most danceable of the album's songs. Phonte knows it, too; "to the floor," he instructs before the bridge; notoriously tongue-in-cheek, he also gives a sly autotuned wink and nod in the last thirty seconds.
Like a true Southern gentleman, Phonte yields the floor to the ladies in the final moments of the album. Nicolay lays down a leisurely, folksy beat for Chantae Cann in "Laughing at Your Plans"; her voice is as sweet and soft as the blanket of dusk that throws a pink glow across the front porch from which she seems to be gazing.
Yet YahZarah, on the last track, "The City Ain't the Same Without You," turns out to be the reason we've jumped off into the deep end of the ocean in the first place. Her delicate, effortless soprano is gently underscored by Nicolay's sparse, robotic accompaniment. Then the intensity builds, her voice become voluminous, and love begins washing us far away from the shore. "And I've only got myself to blame," she sings, wistfully. Move along, folks who want a fairy tale; no delusions to see here.
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The Foreign Exchange
Release date: October 12, 2010
Label: Foreign Exchange Music