"Y'all motherfuckers trying to get that Grammy again!" That's Phonte Coleman—the songwriting, singing and sometimes rapping half of the experimental soul group The Foreign Exchange, impersonating the potential detractors of his group's new, disarmingly serious record, Authenticity.
Their last album, 2008's Leave It All Behind, received a Best Urban/ Alternative Performance Grammy nomination for the song "Daykeeper." Nicolay Rook, the group's producer, laughs at the all-too-real impersonation, stealing a glance away from the heaping plate of hush puppies in front of him. The duo has again rendezvoused on a Wednesday afternoon in late October, at the Smithfield's Chicken 'N Bar-B-Q restaurant in the little town of Warsaw, off Interstate 40's Exit 364. The stop is equidistant from Rook's Wilmington home and Raleigh, where Coleman resides.
Coleman and Rook certainly consider that Grammy nod when they make decisions, but not in the way one might expect. "We're just doing us, and if [something like a Grammy] comes to us, it comes to us," Coleman says brashly, "but I'm damn sure not gonna come to it."
"There is nothing for us that's taboo—except for the thing we did earlier," Nicolay says, casually dropping the group's mantra. And that means not repeating the success of the music that got them the attention of the Grammys. Authenticity—an often desperate, desolate album, complete with a country-and-western duet—treats that last success like anathema, not like a formula.
Indeed, the lesson learned from the success of Leave It All Behind wasn't that they'd found a winning sound but that risk-taking should define The Foreign Exchange. After all, they constructed their 2004 melodic hip-hop debut, Connected, via instant messenger and e-mail after meeting on the rap message board OKAYPlayer and hitting it off. At the time, Coleman lived in Durham and Nicolay in Utrecht, a province in the Netherlands. They didn't meet until after the record was completed. The hour-or-so commute from their respective homes to a Warsaw BBQ joint, then, is a definite improvement on the distance between the two.
Connected was a pivotal record for both Rook and Coleman. It arrived a year after Little Brother, Coleman's hip-hop group with rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder, debuted with The Listening. The album helped solidify the Durham rapper's profile as a casually innovative traditionalist and as a musician who could operate beyond one rap mode. Meanwhile, Rook had all but given up on a professional music career. Connected instantly afforded him an underground rap reputation. Between the release of Connected and its follow-up, Leave It All Behind, Rook released three solo albums and bravely left Utrecht for Wilmington. Little Brother signed with a major label, split not so amicably with that label and lost 9th Wonder.
In the wake of Little Brother's flirtation with major success, Leave It All Behind mostly eschewed hip-hop for a sophisticated, grown-up R&B sound. Frankly, that move pissed off a lot of people. Once the initial shock wore off, however, their quietly genre-pushing album redefined them. The Grammy nomination for "Daykeeper" was mainstream validation that the group's tunnel vision approach to making music—from potentially alienating its core fanbase to Rook relocating to America—was worth the gamble.
The first song The Foreign Exchange recorded for Authenticity was, appropriately, "Everything Must Go." Michael Jackson had just died. They weren't really ready to start a third album. Rather, Coleman and Rook started the same cyber-shuffle of songs they'd always used, sending files and ideas back and forth via e-mail.
"Everything Must Go" begins with an electronic intro that's spare like a John Carpenter movie score. Coleman enters alongside a Brian Eno-like synthesizer whir. As Phonte sings sweet somethings ("Take a ride on the moon/ Take a drive down the beach"), Rook's pop sensibility locks in. The rhythm picks up, and Coleman rides a gorgeous synthesizer line to a revelatory confession: "I used to be so sad and ungrateful/ But they say nobody knows not the day, nor the hour/ So thank you for giving, me reasons for living/ That save my lonely soul."
Authenticity's structure was apparently there from the start; the nebulous globs of electronics flutter around and eventually explode into a melody, all in tandem with Coleman's musings on love. This early in the process though, they were still just messing around.
"It was just like, 'OK, it's just one song,'" Phonte says with a laugh. Soon after, "Authenticity" and "The Last Fall" came together, and they realized these were actually pieces of the whole. They had a title, and, for Rook, they had a centerpiece of sorts—"Authenticity," the song and their symbol, defined their lofty goals but was open to interpretation and would "create discussion" just as well.
"We really try to keep our music as authentic as possible," Coleman chimes in. "It's a mission statement."
It's also a confrontational title. "A lot of people might take the title as cockiness or snobbery," Coleman says, again anticipating the peanut gallery and gruffing up his voice. "'Oh, what you mean?! I ain't authentic motherfucker?!'"
What became the title track is a clever deconstruction of the word authenticity and one that lightens what's either an obnoxiously arrogant or ridiculously sincere title. "Authenticity" is directed at a lover who demands honesty, only to be shocked when she receives it. "You ask me for the whole truth, but for that you're not prepared," Coleman laments during the song. "She begs for authenticity." It's slyly mocking.
"That's just my take on 'you won't love me for who I am,'" he explains. His expression and tone shift, and the modesty is gone. "When truly faced with the truth, some people run away from it." The gears are turning now. "That could apply to the record itself. People say they want something real but the record may hit people, like—" again, he adopts the voice of frustrated fan—"I didn't want it that real."
Authenticity's much more resigned than Leave It All Behind, which had songs like "Take Off Your Blues," a tune both wonderfully romantic and tinged with workaday realities. There was a camaraderie in the songs that detailed love's frustrations. "All Or Nothing" began with a hilarious soliloquy, Phonte arguing with his lover and concluding, "That's cool. I wanted to play Xbox on the big TV anyway." Authenticity's tone is darker, often close to hopeless. "Love is at worst an excuse/ At best it's a truce" goes one chorus. Multiple songs find Coleman with tears in his eyes. There are no Xbox jokes here.
If Leave It All Behind is the unfortunate but invigorating point in a relationship where arguments are mixed with pride, love and anger, Authenticity is the post-argument end, when you've stormed out of the house. It's a long, regret-filled ride up or down Interstate 40 to some barbecue shack.
The dark, searching tone of the album isn't due only to Coleman's words. After the glowing, pocket-symphony style of Leave It All Behind, Rook made a conscious decision to underproduce. "I wanted to do a number of things that I felt would be the logical next step," Rook explains. He speaks of the addition of more acoustic elements and a singer-songwriter aspect. In conversation, both Coleman and Rook reference Neil Young and James Taylor, alongside more expected R&B and electronic influences.
The compositions, then, are significantly pared-down, united by a frosty, depressed sound that's hit-you-in-the-gut sad. Album closer "This City Ain't The Same Without You" is a song about making bounds and leaps for a lover who doesn't care all that much anymore. Gossamer electronic blips and hesitant acoustic guitar make the bittersweet emotions clear.
Rook's instrumentals even directly guided Coleman's songwriting. Many of Rook's working titles—the random names he attributes to instrumentals, simply to organize them—became the actual titles of the songs. He laughs, "I used to have really nerdy names [for songs], like a combination of numbers and letters" but hundreds of dorky-titled songs stopped making sense, so he began giving them atmospheric titles; for example "Authenticity" was "Skyline" when it was but another instrumental on his hard drive. A few of those working titles, like "Don't Wait" and "Everything Must Go," stayed the same.
"I just took the working titles and wrote to them," Coleman explains.
This working titles game is just one example of how The Foreign Exchange relies on chance to keep its work interesting. Rook often explains production techniques as being their rarefied "version" of a certain style or sound. The end of "Don't Wait" shuffles into a fog of vocoder and ghetto-tech "hey!"s, subtly invoking pop-rap radio's "Atlanta sound." The influence is almost unidentifiable by the time it goes through Rook's filter.
And when writer's block strikes, Coleman doesn't wander for inspiration; instead, he adopts other songwriters' voices just to keep his pen flowing. At different times, he adopted the voices of Michael McDonald, R. Kelly and friend and fellow soulster Eric Roberson. Even the work of guys like The-Dream and Ne-Yo is hiding inside Coleman's writing.
"There's a lesson to be learned in every song," he philosophizes. All of it can be stripped for parts. "It's the chop shop, son!"
The best example of the group's sensitivity to the contingencies of the creative process is "Laughing At Your Plans," a smoky, country-tinged duet between Coleman and Chantae Cann. When the instrumental arrived in Coleman's inbox, it sported the playful title "The Return Of Nic's Country Band." He laughed. Then he realized it was a great song. Coleman envisioned a duet and initially considered Norah Jones. Again, though, Grammy bait.
"I felt it would be much more effective to have two black people singing the song," he says. An avowed country music and bluegrass fan, Coleman wanted to make a statement about how "even with something as foreign as country, there is still a lot of soul in it. And a black singer could do this kind of stuff." Matter-of-factly, he adds, "It's just the blues turned around." Allyn Love, a Nashville veteran and director of operations for the North Carolina Symphony, plays pedal steel on the track; fiddle comes from Chatham County Line's John Teer.
"As long as it's a fat black man singing, it's R&B," Coleman says, laughing. The Foreign Exchange isn't even making R&B anymore, though. They didn't really need a country duet, backed by a Dutch producer and two country music thoroughbreds to make that clear. Rook's quick to note the pragmatic aspects of giving it a genre tag for distributors like iTunes. But the group has, once again, found a way to shed and transcend expectations.
"On [Authenticity], we did a lot of things we always wanted to, but had to grow towards to really pull off," Rook says rather modestly. He invokes craftsman-like pop and soul legends who slowly but surely moved toward their specific, game-changing sound—James Brown and Prince, for example. "They became big by doing them," Rook says, his enthusiasm growing, "and they would be doing it whether they had a gold record or they worked here at Smithfield's."