With their fifth studio album, Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey, The Foreign Exchange has perfected its sophisticated take on R&B, incorporating not only a range of sticky sweet melodies, but also a smattering of nuanced romantic themes like domesticity and compromise. But whatever you do, don't call it "grown man music."
"I'd never say no shit like that. The connotation of that is you make boring music to fuckin', ya know, goddamn go to sleep to," The Foreign Exchange rapper-cum-singer Phonte Coleman says of the reviewers who fixate on the mature and nuanced themes of his lyrics. "If you say our music is for grown folks, I hear: 'No adventure, no attitude.' That's not what me and Nick do. On every record, we push ourselves to the limit of our creativity."
Phonte is referring to Dutch R&B and electronica producer Nicolay, with whom he cofounded The Foreign Exchange, who will perform at Amos' Southend on Nov. 6. Back then, in the early '00s, Phonte was known as a member of the burgeoning alt-hip-hop trio Little Brother, which was garnering rave reviews for its landmark 2003 debut, The Listening.
The trio's ambitious-yet-accessible songs reverberated throughout the rap underground, until they were even heard by a then up-and-coming producer in the Netherlands. Born Matthijs Rook, he had adopted the stage name Nicolay, and was making a name for himself by using live instruments instead of more conventional samples. Hearing Phonte's lyrics — delivered in his now trademark, molasses thick North Carolinian drawl — Nicolay was compelled to reach out to his favourite new MC via OkayPlayer's message board.
The two began building songs via ping ponging emails. Nicolay would send an instrumental, then Phonte would add vocals and return it for the producer to mix and master. The resulting record, 2004's Connected, was hailed as an alt-hip-hop classic, and Phonte and Nicolay adopted the moniker The Foreign Exchange as a reference to their transcontinental recording style.
Nicolay moved to North Carolina, where he and Phonte founded their own record label, and began touring and formulating a follow up. That sophomore effort, 2008's Leave It All Behind, incorporated far more of Phonte's brassy singing than his rapping, and was so successful that its song "Daykeeper," was nominated for a Grammy.
Today, Little Brother is on an extended, and notoriously tense, hiatus. The Foreign Exchange is now Phonte and Nicolay's primary focus. The pair has enlisted touring bandmates Zo!, a composer and keyboardist, and vocalists Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden.
Nicolay says Zo! was indispensable on Milk and Honey as a co-producer, adding, "Normally we both don't like to have people around when we're writing or recording. But we went in together, had a clean unused protools session, and didn't set out to make a Foreign Exchange record, but quickly realized that it was becoming one. It was good to get out of my comfort zone like that."
Such a face-to-face session wouldn't seem too strange to many musicians, but it was a serious departure for Nicolay, who continues to write and record with Phonte via email, despite them now living in the same state instead of half a world away.
Nicolay describes that preference for distance as "a strength, we work undisturbed, without the other person looking over our shoulder. So when I send something to Phonte, I've done it in isolation with no other influence other than what I wanted to say."
Nicolay is quick to stress that that time apart doesn't make The Foreign Exchange rusty when they rehearse for live shows, explaining: "The way we make music, without having to talk or to even see each other, I think it's like how a blind person's other senses become stronger."
This partitioned working style also suits Phonte well. "I'm like that Earl Sweatshirt album, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside," he says, before breaking into a baritone laugh. "That's where I'm at in my life now. That album title relates so much to people over 35, though I don't know if that was Earl's target audience. But yeah, I'm not a very social person either. Me and Nick are both like that."
While Phonte stays current when it comes to today's hottest MC's and the latest telecomm recording practices, he wants The Foreign Exchange to be anything but of the moment. Instead, he strives for timelessness.
"People tell us: 'Man, y'all could be touring for 20 or 30 years with these songs.' And I say 'Yeah, that's kind of the point.' In 20 years, all y'all mother fuckers is gonna be old,'" Phonte says with a chuckle. "You're gonna want artists that have grown with you, not someone acting like they're 25. Remain young at heart man, but don't look like a fuckin' dick head either."
Part of his efforts to age gracefully in The Foreign Exchange involve singing about the relatable struggles and desires of his fellow 35-year-olds. Case in point: "Body," a standout track from Milk and Honey that features neon bright keyboard playing and shuffling percussion as Phonte sings: "I don't wanna go out to no club tonight, I just want your body."
"That song's really just me saying 'I could go out and hit the streets and party but, nah, I just wanna stay home and get close to you,'" Phonte says of singing about domestic bliss on the track. He then reiterates his earlier point about the true value of such wizened lyrics: "I wouldn't call it grown-folks music, I'd just call it honest music. It's just music that reflects my perspective. I just write about my life. My records at 35 sound a lot different from when I was 25, as they should."