Happy 15th Anniversary to The Foreign Exchange’s debut studio album Connected, originally released August 24, 2004.
The Internet: sometimes it can be pretty cool. Sure, there are trolls and spam and bots and alt-right dumb-asses, but it has benefits. More than just as a delivery system for cat videos and memes, even.
The Internet is what made The Foreign Exchange and Connected, their first album, possible. It also brought Phonte Coleman and Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook together in the first place. Phonte, a Greensboro, North Carolina rapper/singer first interacted with Nicolay, a Dutch producer, on the music discussion message board of Okayplayer.com.
At the time of Connected’s release, Phonte was best known as one third of the group Little Brother (along with Rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder) and part of the Justus League collective. Nicolay was an up-and-coming producer who was building a mellow but distinct sound. The two had shared common tastes in music and Phonte really dug Nicolay’s beats. They began communicating electronically, and decided to record an album together, using instant messenger to send each other beats and verses.
Artists and producers collaborating without ever meeting in person has happened before; it wasn’t unheard of for an artist to hear a producer’s beat CD, back when such things existed, select a track, then make arrangements to record over it. However, two artists collaborating to record an entire album with an ocean between them was largely unheard of. Phonte and Nicolay completed recording Connected without ever meeting face to face, releasing the album 15 years ago.
Today, The Foreign Exchange is best known as an experimental soul group, with Phonte frequently singing lead vocals over Nicolay’s lush and complex backdrops. But a decade and a half ago, the pair constructed Connected as a straight-ahead hip-hop album. Truthfully, it sounds like a Phonte solo album, or rather a Justus League group album as heard through the filter of Nicolay’s production. None of which is a bad thing, seeing as Phonte was (and still is) one of the most skilled rappers on the mic, and the Justus League had a deep bench worth of talent for the pair to utilize throughout Connected.
Nicolay’s production suits Phonte and his crew well. He mostly utilizes live instrumentation rather than the sample-based approach of 9th Wonder, but the feel and texture of the tracks sound at peace with 9th’s stylings. Nicolay creates a soundscape that’s distinct, but never feels a radical departure from what Phonte and company had rapped over earlier in their career.
Phonte and Nicolay don’t attempt to recreate the wheel on Connected, often creating the type of jams that Phonte sounded comfortable over as a member of Little Brother. He teams with Joe Scudda on “Raw Life” to drop lyrical heat, establishing their own prowess and checking anyone who believes that they’re on their level.
“Nic’s Groove” functions as one of the best Little Brother songs not produced by 9th Wonder, with its graceful mix of horns, layered keyboards, and hard-hitting drums. Big Pooh certainly sounds inspired, but it’s Phonte who contributes not only his best verse on the album, but one of the best of his entire career. He’s in peak form as he raps, “Pause if you feeling that, ’cause I am still in fact / On some Purple Rain shit. Jerome, where my mirror at? / I want some hips and some asses wiggling / In every latitude, longitude, and meridian / Female citizens looking, laughing and giggling / Tired of bullshit so they come to us for deliverance.”
Much of Connected finds Phonte and crew dealing with their pursuit of a successful musical career, and the struggles that it can present. They address these issues with deep self-reflection and show a level of thoughtfulness and maturity that few exhibit on record. “Brave New World” is a deceptively mellow ode to life on the road, where Phonte works to strip away the perceived glamour of the grind, focusing on the ends rather than the means. He raps, “This rap shit ain't all about hoes and supermodels / It's more about me making this money to pay my car note / So our families can feed each other / These days my ends are perfect strangers who'll never meet each other.”
Similarly, “Let’s Move,” another informal Little Brother track, features Phonte and Pooh explaining the necessity of constantly touring and grinding to make a living, while dealing with the stress of being away from their family. The two team up again on “Happiness,” where they contemplate how their music provides them solace from the harshest realities.
Meanwhile, Phonte’s collaborations with rapper Median cover similar introspective ground. “Be Alright” has the two learning to be optimistic in the face of adversity and unforeseen issues. “All That You Are” outlines the constant push and pull that can occur when artists work to pursue their dreams while trying to balance a family life. Both explore the challenges that go along with trying to reintegrate yourself into family life after months on tour. In the end, Phonte strives to make things work, rapping, “I fell asleep with this beat on repeat / Repetitively, life seems to grip me / I’m trying to be a better man, please believe me / Ready and God willing if you’re ready to teach me.”
Phonte and Nicolay also enlisted emcees from outside of the Justus League camp to show their skills on Connected, some from their online connections. Brooklyn’s Von Pea, one third of Tanya Morgan, literally raps the album’s first verse on “Von Sees,” dropping a smooth 16 bars over moody and mellow keyboards. He boasts, “Von Pea, the veggie you can’t eat, you a shrimp scampi / Rap's Camby, crash the boards for mass applause / Ace any master course without a syllabus / Watermark my heart, you can’t get as real as this.”
Phonte’s Virginia-born homies Oddisee and Kenn Starr join forces with him on “The Answer,” another of the album’s few braggadocio-centered tracks. Nicolay blends shimmering keys with neck-snapping kicks and snares, making this track one of Connected’s most rugged. Oddisee is currently known as one of the best rapper/producer combos working in hip-hop these days, but back then he was earning respect as a sharp emcee, rapping, “I’m bad news like obituary sections / The rhymes I write describe the loss of a life the previous night / At an open mic or any type of venue / There ain’t no telling where I'm going ’cause of what I’ve been through.” However, Phonte is determined not to be outshined, as he warns, “Put a mic in my hand and I'mma damage a crowd, man / With technique and above-average style, man / My raps speak to all you savages now, man / The time is right here so let’s get it.”
“Come Around,” sung entirely by Justus League member Darien Brockington, hints at the direction that The Foreign Exchange would move toward in the future. A musically complex and layered soul ballad, Brockington croons to his partner about his attempts to make her happy, as he tries to live his own life. The group would continue to delve deeper into this type of subject matter as their career continued.
As noted, Connected was very much the beginning of The Foreign Exchange’s musical journey. And while Connected remains an incredibly dope album, it wasn’t indicative of the group’s future trajectory. After Connected, The Foreign Exchange’s albums have been largely bereft of rapping, with Phonte using the group to further refine his vocal chops.
Nicolay has asserted that sonically, Connected and Foreign Exchange’s subsequent album Leave It All Behind (2009) aren’t that different. But, as he also notes, when a world-class emcee moves from primarily rapping to primarily singing, the audience is going to note the change. Both members of the group are extremely happy with the group’s direction; Phonte calls The Foreign Exchange his 401k/retirement plan.
Fifteen years after the release of Connected, The Foreign Exchange is still going strong. After their shift in direction, they earned themselves a 2010 GRAMMY nomination (Best Urban/Alternative Performance for "Daykeeper" from Leave It All Behind), and continued to record some of the most creative soul albums of the past decade. Though the group continues to evolve, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t be where it is today without these initial first steps. It’s a blessing that Phonte and Nicolay took a chance and decided that they’d record an album with someone that they’d never met. And that’s more rewarding than a cat video. Most of them, at least.