Sweeter than

Phonte and Nicolay of the Foreign Exchange are smooth and soulful — but that doesn't mean soft


PROFILE "I love singin', but I think I'mma call my solo album, 'Fuck That, Coretta ... These Niggas Thaink I'm Soft,'" tweeted Phonte Coleman. "Thoughts?"

The message appeared on the Southern rapper's Twitter page a day after our interview, when I asked him, "All your projects seem to have a smooth, soulful, almost smooth jazz kind of sound. What is it about that sound that appeals to you?"

While I don't know if my question prompted Phonte's subsequent post, it's clear that Leave It All Behind (Foreign Exchange Music), his 2008 album with Nicolay as the Foreign Exchange, charts new depths of mellowness. In person, Phonte is a hilarious, extremely un-PC wisecracker, as subscribers to his Twitter account (and, back in the Stone Age, his MySpace page) will confirm. However, Phonte's turn as sincere loverman simply explores a side of his personality already revealed in his work as one-third of Little Brother, the hip-hop group for which he remains best known.

For the moment, let's dispense with the clichés about smooth jazz and neo-soul, because that would distract from Leave It All Behind's lushly romantic longings. As one of the better hip-hop producers of the moment, Nicolay knows how to mix dynamic drum tracks — check the hard-stepping rhythm on "All or Nothing" — with sweet yet funky keyboard melodies. At his best, he makes beats filled with uncompromised beauty, from the airy blasts of "Daykeeper" to the clipped, jazz-fusion workout, "House of Cards." "I've always had a deep affinity with hip hop and R&B," says Nicolay, who has a formal music education and plays multiple instruments.

Meanwhile, Phonte has an unmistakably memorable tone, one well suited to the album's suite of tumultuous, make-up-to-break-up songs. Sometimes he flattens his voice too much, thinning it out. But he can carry a tune, and his harmonic style fits Nicolay's melody-rich sounds.

Phonte says, "I did grow up singing in church, as did most black kids in the South. With a Christian grandma, you really didn't have no muthafuckin' choice. [But] I didn't really start taking it seriously until 2005." Once he did, he adds, "I started developing my voice, doing vocal exercises, taking piano lessons and doing voice lessons, little stuff like that." With Little Brother, he mostly stuck to hooks and elaborate chitlin' circuit in-jokes like Percy Miracles. Leave It All Behind marks Phonte's formal singing debut.

Nicolay and Phonte met in 2002 on Okayplayer.com's message board. Since Nicolay lived in the Netherlands and Phonte lived in Durham, N.C., the two collaborated virtually, sending tracks back and forth via the Internet. Released on U.K. major-indie BBE Music — and costarring Phonte's rap friends Tanya Morgan, the Justus League and Darien Brockington — the Foreign Exchange's 2004 debut Connected drew comparisons to The Listening, the 2003 debut by Phonte's other group Little Brother. Both albums sounded like down-home jam sessions, with backpack MCs blacking out in freestyle ciphers and sticking to a true-school aesthetic.

"We were trying to give the Foreign Exchange its own sound, rather than it being another Little Brother record," Nicolay says. "I've been more on the R&B side of things. That was only part of the equation with Connected, and it was much a bigger part of Leave It All Behind." It also helped that, with Little Brother disbanded (Phonte says they're "on hiatus"); Leave It All Behind focuses primarily on Nicolay and Phonte. (There are a few guests, chiefly rising L.A. artist Muhsinah.)

Nicolay, who recently moved to North Carolina with his wife and business partner, Aimee Flint, released Leave It All Behind through his independent company, Nicolay Music/The Foreign Exchange.

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