It may be one of the most beloved stories in underground rap. Dutch hip-hop producer Nicolay and North Carolina rapper Phonte from Little Brother have a chance encounter through the popular Connected.” It’s widely assumed this clever collaboration is a one-time affair, with Phonte resuming his full-time duties in popular underground rap group Little Brother while Nicolay goes back to creating dope beats for whomsoever pays the right fee.
In an unexpected and pleasant surprise to the hip-hop community worldwide, Phonte and Nicolay decided in 2008 to renew their successful collaboration for another album under their adopted band name of The Foreign Exchange. Actually until I downloaded this album I presumed it to simply be Foreign Exchange without any preface but iTunes insists on this, possibly (and absurdly) afraid the group might be confused with the show hosted by Daljit Dhaliwal on PBS. I find the extra word unnecessary and unpleasant so I’ll refer to the group as Foreign Exchange from this point on. Also please note the emphasis on getting the album online, because that’s the ONLY way you’re going to find “Leave it All Behind.” While the last album was conceived digitally and released conventionally, Foreign Exchange have taken the next logical step and moved to releasing the album digitally too. While I still favor having a physical product when I buy albums (I’m just old school that way) it’s not like you can’t burn a CD and print a label for it if you’re so motivated. For comparison’s sake though, consider that this album was $9.99 online, and ponder whether or not you’d pay $11.99 for a copy with gem case, artwork and liner notes accompanying a nice looking CD professionally produced and labeled. To this writer that’s worth the extra two bucks.
Now for those who feel Phonte is one of the best kept secrets in all of hip-hop as a poetical lyrical vocal wordsmith, “Leave it All Behind” may hold a bit of a shock. For the majority of this album Phonte is NOTrapping. The most apt comparison that comes to mind is what happens when Cee-Lo works with Danger Mouse and morphs into Gnarls Barkley. For this writer there’s one key difference though. While both are excellent rappers and capable singers, Cee-Lo injects an over-the-top passionately soulful feeling into each and every word of his songs. Not to be sacrilegous or anything but Cee-Lo sings the CHURCH out of that shit. Phonte on the other hand seems enamored with the concept of singing instead of rapping, yet possibly naive to his limitations as a singer. You can hear who his influences are in songs like “I Wanna Know” quite clearly – a little bit D’Angelo, a little bit R. Kelly and a lot Anthony Hamilton (possibly due to their shared North Carolina heritage). The problem is he doesn’t have the range, resonance or vocal power of any of these men. That’s not to say Phonte is a TERRIBLE singer. This isn’t like going to the bar with your friends on karaoke night while they get drunk and think they can sing like Isaac Hayes only to make asses of themselves. Phonte is competent as a vocalist – he can follow a melody, keep the tempo, provide the right emphasis when needed and when put into collaborative tracks like “House of Cards” with Muhsinah or “Take Off the Blues” featuring Darien Brockington he melds nicely into the groove.
The problem here is that the previous Foreign Exchange album dabbled in all kinds of different sounds while staying firmly rooted in Phonte’s hip-hop style and flow, while “Leave it All Behind” literally has left both their previous collabo’ and his identity as a top underground rapper completely behind. Nicolay is well above par as a producer, and within the next ten years he may come to be as highly regarded by rap heads as legends like DJ Premier and Pete Rock are today, but his sound on “Leave it All Behind” is merely GOOD as opposed to being classic. At some point the songs sound like formulaic quiet storm R&B, which is inoffensive but certainly not inspirational. Given their respective reputations and sincere desire to work with each other Phonte and Nicolay can still pull this off on “Leave it All Behind” and create an acceptable album to listen to. In fact on my short list of rappers who I’ve heard sing, Guru from GangStarr rates 2 out of 10, Cee-Lo rates 9 out of 10, and Phonte falls somewhere in the middle around 5 or 6. There’s only one problem – as a straight up rapper he’s 9 out of 10 if not higher. “Leave it All Behind” is not necessarily for fans of Little Brother. It’s much easier to recommend this one on the basis of Nicolay’s production, even while occasionally formulaic, simply because it’s so well balanced and finely tuned. His ear for production keeps all the layers of melodies, drums and instruments perfectly orchestrated, making even a mediocre track seem better just because of the attention to detail shown in every bar. One closing note – it’s hard NOT to imagine what a better singer like Anthony Hamilton or D’Angelo would have done with these exact same tracks. Phonte gets an A for effort but I think we would all prefer that he stick to singing on these side projects and get back to the rap he does better than almost anybody else out there.