Where does the Foreign Exchange take place? In a fantasy cyberworld, where fantastical ideas are laid on an imaginary table and then agreed upon and carried out in perfect harmony. They don’t let any negative energy in where the Foreign Exchange transacts its business, and anyone pushing bling emphasis or Napoleonic aggression gets a pink slip. Stability and job security o’er at the Foreign Exchange’s zone are a bit undermined, however, by the many lingering miles between the collaborating members.
The aforementioned “perfect harmony” that transpires on Connected, the Foreign Exchange’s debut album, can be attributed to a budding Internet friendship. In 2002, Phonte of North Carolina’s Little Brother checked out some beats posted by Netherlands-based electronic/hip-hop producer Nicolay on the Okayplayer site. Phonte was into what he’d heard and asked the Dutch beatmaker if he could add some lyrics to some of the beats. After the finished product became a b-side to a Little Brother track from 2003’s The Listening, a year and a half of web-based musical exchanges resulted in Connected, one of 2004’s most enchanting hip hop releases. See? All message board discussions aren’t poisonous mind-numbing trash-talk. Some can even be fruitful.
The Foreign Exchange’s LP is a successful blend of artistry because of the team’s insistence on polishing every composition until it feels as if there’s nothing left to do to it. These tracks are complete. Nicolay and Phonte pool their resources here so that the selections are as rich as something the Fifth Dimension may have performed: multi-layered, colorful experiments. The album’s cover art is a storybook sunset behind silhouetted lovers leaning against a chain link fence. The CD booklet allows a little peak into their afternoon, as the dynamics of the two musicians that are separated by so much land and sea are countered in photo form by vivid portraits of togetherness and unity.
It’s not as if there isn’t any super-male bravado on Connected, but most of the effort is centered on communicating the warm elements of its lush electronic backdrops. When the beats aren’t the result of Nicolay’s masterful programming, he’s implemented live instruments. Almost every track is accented by deep multiple sections of vocals, often supplied by Phonte himself and the revolving cast of friends involved — a cast including his group members 9th Wonder (who lent his coveted production hand) and Big Pooh, as well as a busload of others.
Connected‘s songs are a celebration of hip-hop, electronic music, soul, and psychedelia. The moods vary, from lifting love electropop in “The Foreign Exchange Title Theme” and “All That You Are” to the battle-tested searing flow of Joe Scudda and Phonte in “Raw Life”. On “Let’s Move”, euphoric brass, multiple vocals, and thick beats accent verses from Big Pooh and Phonte for the album’s champion track.
A looped string and brass section provides the base for “Let’s Move” while Nicolay adds each swirling additional piece at comfortable intervals. This is the brightest representation of Connected, because it offers both artists at their best; guest Big Pooh, who performs on a lot of the record, expresses the woes of the independent musician, similar to those recently expressed by other indie masters of the game such as Jean Grae or Brother Ali. Phonte’s Mos Def/Black Thought-like verse on “Let’s Move” is characterized by a need to apologize to his family for being away from them while recording and performing. DJ O’Neill’s scratching takes the track out before the sixth one enters shortly thereafter, as the record’s coziness leaves little room between each song.
Records like Connected are closer to projects than anything else. The dilemma is that a taste of such a promising project only yields mounting anticipation for another taste. With all the distance between these two key players, the taste for a second Foreign Exchange album still seems miles away. Many, many miles away.