Phonte and Nicolay, the respective emcee and producer behind the Foreign Exchange, have done just what their sophomore album, Leave It All Behind, alludes to. They have left it all behind, and by “it”, I mean their debut, Connected, which was fresh, stylish, and absolutely fantastic. Although there are musical similarities to that album, the duo has jumped head first into more mature territory on Leave It All Behind. The playfulness that has characterized Phonte throughout his career is mostly gone in this more focused, grown-up songwriter. And yes, he does sing on every song. But don’t think he decided to randomly up and try his hand at some Love Below-esque joints. Anyone who knows Phonte is well aware that he has sung plenty of hooks, and even some full tracks, both as part of Little Brother and the Foreign Exchange.
Even though Phonte isn’t going to win any awards for his vocal performances here, not recognizing his talents as a singer would be a sin. Few rappers can match his chops, both as an emcee and a singer. It’s for that reason that Phonte gets a slight pass for not having the range of his vocalist contemporaries, like John Legend and others. But Phonte knows that. He doesn’t try to hit any notes outside of his range or overextend himself. Instead, he uses his charming, sometimes smooth voice to lure you in. And some of his duets are absolutely breathtaking, particularly those with Muhsinah. Her breathy voice meshes with his so well that it’s impossible to not get sucked into tracks like “Daykeeper” and “House of Cards”, which are a one-two punch that R&B has not seen yet this year.
Of the two, though, “Daykeeper” reigns supreme. Besides also sitting in the throne of this album’s best track, it also is easily one of the best singles of the year. Like the rest of the album, it’s refreshing and completely captivating. And it fully displays what Phonte and Nicolay are trying to do with Leave It All Behind. As for the track itself, the instrumentation is as lush as ever, and the aforementioned duet of Muhsinah and Phonte will send shivers down your spine. If it doesn’t, you might have no soul. Just try to not nod along to those drums. Good luck, because the only way you won’t is if you are in a neck brace. And if you think you won’t find yourself singing along after several listens, you might be insane. The vocals are clear as day and hypnotic, while the lyrics are packed with straightforward but poignant imagery.
To be fair, that last thought could apply to each joint on here, like the aforementioned “House of Cards”, a track that is brought to astounding heights, and “Take Off the Blues”, which follows “Daykeeper”. As “Take Off the Blues” rushes in, the intricacies of Nic’s production are clear as day. His ear for everything — from the boom-bap drums to the vibrant guitars — is truly something to experience. Some hip-hop heads might dismiss his style as soft, but those are simply disgruntled, possibly jealous fools. Although that criticism might not apply here, it would not be a stretch to say that at times, Nicolay’s backdrops can blend together. But that could apply to any producer looking to create a cohesive musical landscape.
Two tracks stand out for reasons that don’t fall in line with the previously mentioned highlights. First, there is “All or Nothing/Coming Home to You”, a mostly smooth R&B joint like the others. But almost halfway through, Phonte slides in for one of his signature rapped verses. It is a slight tease at first that shows how amazing this album could have been as a true followup to Connected. As you listen to the track again, though, it’s obvious that the verse fits in perfectly as is. His verse on “Something to Behold” conjures the same thoughts, except it’s far superior to the former, partially because the track itself is better. “Something to Behold” is easily the most playful of any of the joints on here, though it’s still effective, and Phonte’s verse is hilarious, clever, and just enjoyable. Even better, his lyrics in the other parts of the song are just as relevant, like “I want to call you every day / when I ain’t got shit to say / this must be love”. It might seem simplistic, and it is, but anyone in love knows that feeling of just wanting to hear their significant other’s voice.
Even when the Foreign Exchange enter either familiar territory, “I Wanna Know”, or throw out a track some could call cliché, “Leave It All Behind”, they still succeed. It’s rare that an emcee is so capable as a songwriter and it’s equally as rare, today especially, that a duo with an excellent debut can follow that album up with something completely new and fantastic. Here’s hoping that fans of that debut can realize Phonte and Nicolay are simply leaving Connected behind and letting it stand on its own. And, as a result, this talented duo has made one hell of an album, actually one of the best of 2008, in the process.