Happy 10th Anniversary to The Foreign Exchange’s second studio album Leave It All Behind, originally released October 14, 2008.
I’ve written before that not a lot of artists are comfortable with change. Switching gears artistically and risking the ire of your fanbase is an intrinsically ballsy move, and not one that artists take lightly. But when the gambit works, it’s beautiful to behold. A prime case in point is The Foreign Exchange, who shifted gears and created their best work with their sophomore album Leave It All Behind.
The Foreign Exchange is made up rapper/singer Phonte Coleman and producer Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook. Phonte was best-known as one third of Little Brother, the acclaimed North Carolina-based hip-hop group, of the Justus League crew, that hit the scene ostensibly with The Listening (2003). Nicolay is a Dutch producer/musician who was plying his trade in his native country when he first connected with Phonte.
The two first interacted on the Okayplayer message boards, sharing opinions about music and building artistically, and eventually decided to record an album together. Since they were separated by the Atlantic Ocean, the two would exchange beats and vocals via Instant Messenger (this was in the days before large e-mail attachments and Dropbox). The two eventually put together Connected (2004), an exceptional debut album that dropped on BBE Records. It was a soulful hip-hop album that features some of Phonte’s best lyrical performances, and was sonically distinctive, but still at peace with previous Justus League releases.
After the success of Connected, Nicolay moved to North Carolina in 2006 and the pair began working on a follow-up album. However, rather than construct an album that was in the same vein as Connected, the duo decided to flip the script. Phonte had always been known as a great emcee, but he had grown up on the music of Intro and Jodeci as much as he had A Tribe Called Quest and Ice Cube. In the process, he established himself as one of the best rappers who can also sing. As a result, the two decided that Phonte would primarily sing throughout Leave It All Behind. Nicolay also shifted his production style, becoming more experimental in his dalliances into traditional R&B and electronic music. As a result, Leave It All Behind sounds like a completely different animal than Connected, and a remarkable one at that.
Leave It All Behind is built around the theme of the volatility of relationships. Phonte has said that while he wrote and recorded this project, his first marriage was going through ups and downs, and he tried to capture those feelings within the confines of this 11-track album.
The album begins exploring both sides of a complicated relationship. The opening track “Daykeeper” is a duet of sorts by Phonte and Muhsinah, a frequent collaborator throughout the album. Things are bucolic at first, as over a contemplative keyboard melody, both sing of an idyllic partnership where each one knows the other’s deepest secrets and each has pledged to watch over their partner whenever they leave the safety of their bed. But as the song unfolds, they each detail their doubts and fears of their inability to keep things together.
“Daykeeper” is the ideal album opener, as it lays out the themes that run through Leave It All Behind and establishes that the group was moving in a different direction with this project. “Daykeeper” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance, the group’s first and thus far only nomination.
The springy “Take Off the Blues” moves things in a different direction, both sonically and subject-matter wise. Lyrically, Phonte basks in the glow of pure, unconditional love as he shares his bed with his partner. In terms of production, it’s closer to the sound they created on Connected. And even though there’s no rapping, there’s a really great trumpet solo by Stan Graham.
Even though much of Leave It All Behind deals with the raw feelings that lovers go through in the midst of their relationships, songs like “All or Nothing” find some moments of humor in these unpredictable situations. The song deals with how couples can have full-throated, explosive arguments, only to realize after the fact that the source of the disagreement was laughably trivial. Phonte’s spoken intro is one of his best (“That’s cool, I wanted to play X-Box on the big TV anyway!”), and his brief eight-bar verse is solid as well, as he raps, “Hold up, you ain’t gotta live through such extremes / I understand my baby and just what she means / And even if we fight and call each other some names / It ain’t the end of the world, it's just a part of the game.”
Nicolay shows his affinity for electronic music on tracks like “Sweeter Than You” and “If This Is Love.” The former is dominated by shimmering keyboards and solid drums, making an ideal soundscape for Phonte to ponder a relationship that it’s in a constant state of flux, as he sings, “Trying to hold back the feeling / But we both can see / That its calling me / Been here a thousand times before.” Meanwhile, “If This Is Love” has the feel of a European house/broken beat track, as Phonte teams up with frequent collaborator Yahzarah to rhapsodize about the fog that can occur when you get wrapped up in your feelings.
The Foreign Exchange prove extremely adept at describing the pain associated with the dissolution of love, and the resignation that can occur when love fades. With the brief “Valediction,” Phonte sadly acknowledges that he and his partner can no longer live in denial, singing, “This place is no longer yours / and I left your things they’re right by the door” and “Our love is such a rush / But inside it’s slowly killing me.” In a particularly effective touch, the end of the song echoes the music and vocals from “Daykeeper,” turning the song into a heartbreaking sequel of sorts.
The duo cover the immortal Stevie Wonder on “If She Breaks Your Heart,” a song from the Jungle Fever soundtrack, which Phonte regards as one of the best albums ever. Here they transform what was once a New Jack Swing-esque track into a mellow neo-soul ballad, with Yahzarah playing the role of Kimberly Brewer, singing lead, to Phonte’s Stevie. Zo!, now a mainstay with The Foreign Exchange’s touring band, works behind the board with Nicolay on this track, programming the drums and playing the bass and keyboards. The result is arguably even better than Wonder’s original composition.
Amidst much of the pain and emotion, Phonte and Nicolay bring Leave it All Behind to a close on a largely positive and hopeful note. Phonte is joined by Muhsinah and Little Brother affiliate Darien Brockington on “Something To Behold.” The song is a great reflection on how love and dedication manifest and make you feel. As Phonte sings, nothing says true love like bringing your partner chicken wings on their lunch break (“Twelve piece, fried hard!”).
The album ends with the title track, a piano driven arrangement bolstered by percussion and what sounds like flutes that’s simultaneously melancholy and uplifting. Phonte has said that he wrote it in response to the not guilty verdict in the infamous Sean Bell shooting. Hours before his wedding, Bell was shot and killed by the NYPD during a highly controversial incident, and the officers involved were found not guilty in the subsequent trial. Here, on “Leave it All Behind,” Phonte reflects on his two young sons, composing a lullaby for them, encouraging them to leave the troubles of the world behind them as they forge their own futures.
Leave It All Behind was a bold creative step for Phonte and Nicolay, and it has certainly paid off. The album would set the template for how the group would record albums going forward, moving much more towards exploring styles of soul, R&B, and jazz with their music. They’ve released three more albums in the subsequent 10 years, each one interesting and experimental in its own way. The Foreign Exchange have also become the primary Phonte delivery system, as he’s only released a pair of rap albums since Leave It All Behind dropped, deciding to focus much of his creative energy as an artist on being a singer rather than a rapper (though he’s certainly still a great rapper).
Most groups don’t take risks like The Foreign Exchange did with Leave It All Behind. To see the group excel given their choices is encouraging and offers proof that spreading their creative wings resulted in the delivery of great music.