In 2004, The Foreign Exchange, consisting of North Carolina emcee Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay, delivered the highly sensual Connected, an album that matched introspective lyricism with beats that defied simplicity. Fashioned through an Internet medium, Connected was based on more than just a solid idea; the tracks represented a true chemistry, as the album moved with the sweeping emotions of a ‘70s soul record re-contextualized into a modern hip-hop sound. Phonte, then known for his work with Little Brother, was ideally categorized as the backpacking type: wholly expressive and witty, yet accessible and jaunty. His beatmaking counterpart possessed what was needed to smooth the record into a gorgeous plane: musical emotiveness and vulnerability. As a result, Connected was an injection of non-portentous hip-hop whose freshness emanated through the clouds of forgettable underground nothings.
With Phonte diddling with his collective Little Brother, Nicolay subsequently took the plunge of independence by releasing instrumental mixtapes that spotlighted the man behind the boards. It became apparent that Nicolay’s musical style was that of his own—not a mere duplication or mirroring of related peers 9th Wonder and Khrysis—and with each release, his sound flourished as he began to experiment with craftier sample manipulation and develop an even lusher sound, signifying a pseudo-hip-hop adolescence. The release of his third and newest album, Here, marks Nicolay as past the age of puerile transformation, as his record represents the most mature and unsure thematic of them all: romanticism. Though brief in duration, Here represents this theme with ladles of thick and beautifully relaxed melodies, alternating between compelling instrumentals and a weighty assortment of guest appearances.
On the instrumental tracks, Nicolay echoes his heartening sentiment as he varyingly approaches expression in different forms. The album is framed around the sappy tracks “Here (Intro)” and “Here (Outro)”, two tracks of the same instrumental, and while he may be overambitious to repeat the piece at the beginning and end of the record, it unexpectedly serves its intended purpose of providing both introduction and closure. “Here” plays as a glistening studio instrumental of slightly corny proportions, pulsing with a glistening piano and breathy pipe melody. At the beginning of the record, it plays as a mood relaxant to assuage the listener for what follows. But as the record nears completion, the track shifts in intent as it provides the same sense of comfort and security as that of fresh romance, with the warmth of the flute and crash of the piano serving as a breath of blissful naiveté and hopeless optimism.
The other two instrumentals on the album, “Give Her Everything” and “Let It Shine for Me”, string the thread of romanticism in different ways. On the fantastic latter, Nicolay creates a bewitching melody consisting of unresolved piano progression, acoustic guitar and a deep vocal sample of an old man’s croons, which goes so far as to suggest that love can extend past its ripe age of youth and still possess its initial vitality. Unfortunately, the former instrumental “Give Her Everything” is crotchety and crass, with its minor musical foundation built on a warm piano riff. The downside of the track is its remarkably out-of-context vocal clip, which takes the album away from its hip-hop core and mixes in a pale and under-contemplated tinge of hard rock. While the clip keeps romanticism at a constant with the lyrics “I’ll give her everything / I’d buy her diamond rings”, the searing vocal inflections shape the track as an annoyance, rather than have its potential cultivated as a bubbling groove.
Nicolay has a tendency to dot his instrumentals with affecting vocal samples, but he digresses from this style as Here is assisted by a bevy of original guest appearances, all of whom complement Nicolay’s loops with their own musical animation. Black Spade, a St. Louis rapper (and fellow beatsmith), is a recurring go-to, as he treats three of the album’s 11 tracks with socially conscious rhymes. Of the more memorable, “The End Is Near”, a grungy track suitable for a cinematic sunset ride-out, features Black Spade lightheartedly rapping “Haters hope I blow so they can not stand me / Cause I’m sick James, bitch / And not Rick James / Hand to the face, slap a nigga out his name.” Although Spade’s presence may be too prevalent for a disc meant to spotlight Nicolay, the rest of the guests make tidy and wonderful appearances on the other tracks. The throbbing piano-cum-horn blast “What It Used to Be” features Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa, who lyrically plays with an entrancing vocal sample, while Foreign Exchange associate Yahzarah closes the record on the bopping soul romp “Adore”. On the track, Yahzarah sings with burning ferocity, blasting lyrics that appropriately tie in romanticism like “Love doesn’t happen to folks like me / I was used to tragedy / Never thought love would come catch me.”
Yahzarah may be speaking for herself, but seems to share the same impassioned integrity that Nicolay attempts to relay throughout all of Here. Nicolay has tastefully managed to convey his love through (and, quite aptly, of) music by combining swirling instrumentation and inherent emotion in every track on the album. Although Nicolay could have taken the opportunity to spotlight more of his own merits and spare the disc from overabundant guest appearances, Here leaves the listener with an impact as two-sided as its recurring bookends instrumental: either a shared sense of Nicolay’s tender feelings or a smug sense of comfort, knowing that he has finally found the most successful way to unite his emotions and musical ambitions.
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