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The Foreign Exchange - Connected

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Artist: The Foreign Exchange

Album: Connected

Label: BBE

Review date: Sep. 8, 2004

Your typical foreign exchange is a badly-conceived 8th-grader swap: spoiled American goes abroad and doesn’t bother to learn the native language, overwhelmed foreigner comes stateside to be treated like a developmentally-challenged moon rock by all he meets, overall good served = none.

The Foreign Exchange is a little different than your typical swap. For starters, take away all the traveling: Nicolay (Dutch beat architect extraordinaire) and Phonte Coleman (best known as one-third of North Carolina hip-hop wunderkind Little Brother) never so much as had a phone conversation during the year and a half it took to conceive Connected, swapping files and song ideas over the Internet and ultimately slapping songs together in different studios. The talent, including guest appearances by Little Brother’s Big Pooh and an assortment of Carolinian talent, is strictly American, so in a sense, this is more of a Dutch beat export project than a true exchange; nevertheless, the continental divide never makes for a disconnected listen. A collaboration that defies much of the nature of collaboration, Connected is not a second Little Brother album, a great producer’s showcase, or a complete smash hit. But it does have elements of all three.

Connected definitely serves as a continuation of what Little Brother started with perhaps 2003’s most satisfying hip hop album, The Listening: three songs featuring Phonte and Big Pooh together again feature Phonte at his liveliest, sprinkling punchlines (“On some Purple Rain shit / Jerome, where my mirror at?”) in his Pete Rock-like tone. But even the album’s focus on Phonte, who sings hooks as sweetly as he hits rhymes, is diffused by the vast number of guest spots, many from unsigned artists. Unsurprisingly, the results are mixed, usually based on how these newcomers hold with their host. While Oddissee and Kenn Starr nicely sandwich Phonte on the banger “The Answer,” “Be Alright” features a subpar verse from Median especially underwhelming in that it follows the immediacy of Phonte’s “My girl was throwing up this morning / I’m praying that it’s something she ate.” It’s definitely generous for Phonte to hand over entire songs to the junior varsity squad - and many acquaint themselves well, most of all singers Yahzarah and Darien Brockington - but there’s only so many spots one can give before an album becomes a compilation.

For Nicolay, this album marks the first time most American ears have heard his trademark tracks, flowing, keyboard-heavy compositions by and large sample-free: there’s not even a familiar breakbeat to be heard here, making the sound all the fresher. He should definitely get future work stateside, even if his sound palette is a bit limited at points. A little less of the swirling, airy sound of tracks like “Von Sees,” a tad more of the electro-bounce of “Raw Life” and “The Answer” and the concoction will be just right. As it stands, Nicolay’s sound still stands up quite well over a full album, if bonus tracks “Call” and “Downtime” could have been left off with no regrets; “Downtime” in particular proves that although he can use vocoder without laughable results, Nicolay’s still got a lot to learn about the funk.

Connected is a high mark for international hip-hop relations, the warm, soulful product of the meeting (of sorts) of two well-matched talents. Now it’s time for the import-export cycle to go in reverse. My vote is for pairing DJ Premier with Cuban hip-hoppers Orishas, embargo be damned.

By Josh Drimmer

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