For those who don’t know, Foreign Exchange is an effort between Little Brother emcee Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay. They met over the Okayplayer message board and started collaborating online without meeting in person, thus the name of the group. When Foreign Exchange first began, it was more hip hop-oriented. It definitely pushed the envelope, but mostly featured Phonte rapping over some interesting and beautiful music. Now on their third album, the two are definitely more influenced by R&B and progressive rock.

One of the things that might throw you at first if you’re not already familiar with it is Phonte’s voice. He only raps on a small section of the album, instead opting to flex his pipes and showcase his singing ability. He tends to stay in a higher register, and it soon becomes obvious that Phonte is not moonlighting as a singer or doing anything ironically. He has had vocal training, as evident by the nicely articulated vibrato and warm harmonies. He also has a good ear for melody and phrasing, which he brings to his rapping.

What this project allows Phonte to do is to become more introspective. As an emcee in Little Brother and in his other projects, he tended to be sarcastic lyricist annoyed with societal trappings, dealing with race, record labels, and raising a family. With Foreign Exchange, he’s given more space and time to dwell on the intricacies of his personal relationships and to explore the emotional content. I think some people might be tempted to choose one over the other, but I prefer a both/and approach, as it allows for a powerful musical scope.

As a producer, Nicolay likes to work with a mixture of live instrumentation on keyboards and guitars and programmed drum machines. There is definitely an early ‘80s R&B vibe to a lot of the sounds being produced, especially with the keyboards. Much like Bilal did on his recent effort, this is expanded upon with unconventional song structue. There is also a grandness to it that brings to mind the production that Dave Sitek does with TV on the Radio. He walks the fine line between sounding retro and contemporary, while incorporating elements of jazz, rock, hip hop, and R&B, all without losing the listener and connecting to the lyrics and voice of Phonte. Taking all this into consideration, it’s an impressive feat.

If I was going to say there was a weakness to this album, it would be that it lacks a stand-out single. However, this is compensated for me by being an album that I can listen to repeatedly in its entirety and discover new things with each rotation. It has grown on me exponentially since I first listened to it, and I can only hope that Nicolay and Phonte keep pushing each other for years to come.