The best of both worlds has been redefined. When Phonte of Little Brother fame was searching Okayplayer.com, he stumbled across a post that simply said to “check out these beats.” Phonte decided to check out the fledgling producer and found something mind-blowing – a producer whose style rivals the likes of his own in house beatsmith 9th wonder. A producer who encompasses the styles of funk, soul and hip-hop and takes it to a level that has not been heard recently. The producer’s name was Nicolay. The problem was, Nicolay didn’t reside in the same city as Phonte, as a matter of fact Nicolay didn’t even stay in the same country. So how would the two make it work? Over the past year and a half, the duo managed to hook up via the Internet, and bounced concepts, beats, and vocals off of each other until it concluded with the conception of Connected, under the guise of Foreign Exchange. Jay-Z and R. Kelly, eat your hearts out because this duo has taken on the concept and transported it to another level altogether.
While Little Brother has breathed life into hip hop at a time when the art form was suffering without the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Foreign Exchange fills a void for those who want their hip-hop a little more of the groovy variety. As soon as the “Foreign Exchange Title Theme” sets in on the naive ears, listeners will realize that Connected is a different animal in its entirety. The soulful singing and vibes bring a feeling of vibrant joy to the listener, something that has been sparse in hip-hop over the last few years. Nicolay showcases a signature sound that instantaneously will separate him from his hip-hop counterparts. The crisp drums of “Raw Life” orbit around Phonte and Joe Scuda’s razor sharp delivery. What separates this track is the way Nicolay filters Phonte’s verse as it builds into a violent uprising as Tay verbalizes “I speak with no prejudice/You thought kissing ass was in my blood type/ O(h) Negative.” Airy flutes combust into the controlling “Let’s Move” as Tay and Big Pooh pound out line after line with a moving hook that will send many a hip hop head into a state of hypnotism. At this point open ears will realize that Connected is something special. But thoughts of just something “special” will develop into something a little bit more extravagant when the astonishing “Nic’s Groove” invades speakers. The melodic groove is something to behold as Big Pooh and Phonte “Connect like He Man and Battlecat” and manage to ebb and sway with Nicolay’s incredible vibe. If there ever was a hip-hop joint made for the fellas to grab a lady by the hips and groove the evening away, this is it. As the production fades out, the listener may be forced to hit the repeat button but just as that index finger extends the vibrant production is brought back easing the listener into a land all to itself. Even the interlude of laid-back piano riffs finds its place in between tracks and is just as important as the song itself.
While Nicolay’s production shines through and though, Phonte takes the opportunity to prove that he is no slouch on the mic either. He utilizes his time on the mic to get a little introspective in between the smoothed out sounds of “Be Alright.” He then maintains command of the mic to give his insight on his universe on “Brave New World.” Phonte stays grounded throughout and attests that he just isn’t there to ride the production. To set the mood even further, Foreign Exchange tosses in a few “neo-soul” joints to keep the energy flowing. The apt stylings of “Come Around” provide the perfect set up for Phonte and Big Pooh’s observation of their careers thus far on “Happiness.” Nicolay puts together another uplifting beat that would make the staunchest of soul supporters give him a resounding thumbs up. Just when you thought it was safe and the song is ending, Nicolay breaks the beat down to places unknown and for that brief moment the listener is transported to ephemeral ecstasy. The “Foreign Exchange End Theme” sets in to close out the album but like any great performer knows; there is always room for a curtain call. “All That You Are” is that proper curtain call as Tay and Median rumble amongst the triumphant production to close out the album.
Seldom has a hip-hop album encompassed soulful grooves like Connected has. Sure many albums have come along that have attempted to create an atmosphere of serene vibes and tranquility, but those very vibes are broken up when artists look for a brief change in pace. Connected doesn’t suffer from this. Each joint smoothly transitions into the next generating an ambiance like none other. What Phonte and Nicolay have done is remarkable not only in the sense of music but in conception and completion. If you are looking for something crunk look elsewhere. But if you are in the disposition of setting the mood and settling into a comfort zone like none other, check out the Foreign Exchange. I promise in terms of establishing a groove that there is nothing like it.
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