Three years ago, a German rap artist invited Dutch producer Nicolay Rook to deejay his set in Tokyo. Upon returning to Wilmington, N.C., where Nicolay has lived since 2006, Nicolay immediately began recording music inspired by his five-day stay in the city's Shibuya district. The project was put on hold, though, as LPs with Houston emcee Kay, of the Foundation, and with Durham's Phonte Coleman, Nicolay's partner in the svelte soul jam The Foreign Exchange, were priorities. After the completion of Leave It All Behind, last year's second Foreign Exchange album, Rook put the finishing touches on Shibuya: City Lights, Vol. 2, his instrumentals-based project. Coleman came on board to write four songs for Durham darling Carlitta Durand to sing. The 15-track LP showcases a highly finessed producer who continues to grow but never overwhelms.
Recent history suggests that any Coleman project comes with at least one of three gifted female vocalists—Yahzarah, Muhsinah or his newest singer-fling, Carlitta Durand. Which vocalist comes along shouldn't be much of a worry for two reasons. First, Coleman—a gifted, gabbing rapper and sentimental soul man—provides mandarin lines aplenty: "Even when the nights are quiet and the moon is rising/ Every face has some glory to sell," Durand sings on the lead single, "Lose Yourself." What's more, Nicolay is often at his strongest without any vocal company. He relies on gradual builds to drag listeners in, pushing their guards down, charging through slow storms of emotion. "The Inner Garden" may not be Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire," but if you follow its pulse close enough, it leads to its own ecstatic nirvana with beautiful chord repetition that whisks the close listener to a plush spiritual escape. "Saturday Night" salutes the house music gods as it works to become the life of the party, while "Meiji Shrine" hides its reference to another deity—the late hip-hop idol Dilla—beneath its ethnic title. And despite only one vocal appearance by Phonte Coleman, the other half of The Foreign Exchange, you're hard-pressed not to hear Shibuya as an extension of Leave it all Behind's often melancholy approach. That is, it doesn't fight back with attitude.
So, yes, this is just "another boring (mostly) instrumental album" but, no, you won't be bored: Nicolay finds neat little pockets in his songs where he elevates from sober to soulful, moving from moments of drift to jams that burn bright. He sounds somehow muffled and mystic, and his best work seems like a skeleton and a surfeit. City Lights 2 suggests Nicolay's sound is slowly evolving to work more through overarching grace than overwhelming greatness. Nicolay's Shibuya district experience and the memories he puts to tape here seem to have made him into a deep-thinking musician. Lucky for us, he wasn't so submerged that he overthought this compelling project.