Modern technology is a beautiful thing. Showing just how far the music industry has advanced in recent years, Little Brother's Phonte and producer Nicolay have released an album entirely recorded without ever being in the same studio. After contributing a beat to Little Brother's critically acclaimed The Listening, as well as collaborations with that North Carolina-based group's crew Justus League, Nicolay inspired newfound creativity within Phonte, who tapped the beat-maker to form this side-project, Foreign Exchange. Nicolay made the instrumentals overseas, sent them to Phonte through instant messenger and emails, and then Phonte would provide the vocals, eventually resulting in the duo's full-length release, Connected.
Connected is a unique listening experience, one fusing jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and other musical styles into an enjoyable whole of easy listening sounds. Best described as 'mood music', Connected is packed with selections aimed at summer night drives in your ride, or downtime with just you and your CD player. Phonte, along with several members of the Justus League, serve up positive verses that uplift rather than litter the mind with tired violence and misogyny, while Nicolay's beat-work bangs along nicely, utilizing various instruments and electronic devices. Connected is a successful union for Phonte and Nicolay, occasionally losing steam due to monotony in both subject matter and audio appeal, but never enough to completely disappoint.
Nicolay offers up a dark blend of synthesizers and percussion on the rough-edged "Raw Life," one of the album's highlights as Phonte and Joe Scudda bless the track with battle-ready raps. "Hustle Hustle" brings organs and horns into the mix to effectively inject some jazz into the picture, while the crooning heard on "Sincere" smoothes the mood out with tight rhythm and blues. The soulful "Come Around' would fit perfectly on any modern R&B album, and is a prime example of the diverse music being presented by the Foreign Exchange.
Fans of Little Brother are given two chances to see what Phonte and Big Pooh can do without a 9th Wonder beat, and the LB MCs deliver back-to-back victories. "Let's Move" sports a carnival-like instrumental and catchy hook that is slightly different than past Little Brother tracks, but still maintains the magic that made their past efforts memorable. "Happiness" rekindles The Listening's strengths with Nicolay's breezy beat and the MCs' acknowledgement of all things that give each one pleasure in their respective lives. These two songs are sufficient proof that 9th Wonder isn't the only attraction that Little Brother has to offer, and only heightens anticipation for the group's sophomore album, The Minstrel Show.
The consistently up-tempo nature of Connected does drag at times, though. Tracks like "Nic's Groove" and "Brave New World" follow the same exact formula as the songs before and after them, and could confuse listeners as to when a new song has started. More tracks in the vein of the aforementioned 'Raw Life" would have been gladly accepted, and could have provided some balance to this overall one-sided affair. Whether these points are flaws or not ultimately depends on the specific listener, but many may become somewhat bored during the middle portion of the album, and tune out completely. This would be a shame, as it would take away from the beautifully constructed gems "All That You Are" and "Be Alright Remix" that help to conclude Connected.
Despite this setback, Connected still shines as quality addition to any music fans' collection, completely steering away from formulaic album conception towards creative and artistic merit. Phonte definitely establishes himself as a strong talent outside of his Little Brother notoriety, and Nicolay makes a solid name for himself among the game's gifted up-and-coming producers. If tales of positivity over soothing backdrops are your desired tastes, then the Foreign Exchange has just what you need to make your days go by much easier.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: June 15, 2004