When The Foreign Exchange released its debut album, Connected, in 2004, the experience felt like a sigh of relief: For Phonte Coleman, it was a break from the brand of Little Brother, the then-buzzing, traditionalist rap trio suddenly saddled with the task of saving all hip-hop. For Dutch producer Nicolay Rook, then living in the Netherlands, the record marked a formal entry into underground hip-hop and the auspicious introduction of a major talent. And for the listener, the unlikely duo revealed sonic surprises through simple, subtle adjustments to the indie rap blueprint. Whether that meant a jauntily jumbled Bing Crosby sample on "Let's Move" or the rap-verse-free R&B of "Come Around," Connected presented an inclusive, celebratory spirit.
A series of sea changes has since defined The Foreign Exchange's output, fitting for a band wrought of artistic restlessness, anyway. 2008's Leave It All Behind presented a sophisticated pocket symphony rumination on the ups-and-downs of long-term relationships, while 2010's Authenticity bordered on hopelessness and melancholy held together by frosty synthesizers. "Love is at worst an excuse," Coleman sang. "At best it's a truce." With each album, Coleman and Rook found the kind of groove that they could've ridden for the next decade of their discography; instead, they've become a DIY R&B institution, hellbent on reinventing themselves each time out.
The grand changes continue on their fourth album, the new Love in Flying Colors. This is a shout-it-from-the-rooftops, I'm-in-love record—bright and starry and florid, a definitive detour from the glacial and moody Authenticity. Making music that expresses happiness, particularly when it's this slack-jawed and starry-eyed, requires a daring commitment to honesty, and The Foreign Exchange turns itself over completely. When opener "If I Knew Then" hits a fever pitch with the refrain "Feels so good/ Love's flying high," for instance, you can hear Coleman let out a delightful chuckle beneath the summery electro-funk. It's an infectious moment. The drum 'n' bass of "Call It Home" expertly captures the heart's nervous pitter-patter at an emotional epiphany: "There's a war but I'm still on your side/ We're not on a separate teams," Coleman croons.
Given Coleman's caustic, no-bullshit personality (in person, on Twitter, in his raps) and Authenticity's dark-night-of-the-soul experience, his delight throughout Love in Flying Colors is particularly affecting. This is an experiment in positivity, a full-stop embrace of the sentimental. Rook's production—a mix of artisanal R&B and the minimalist throb of house music—offers a fitting canvas. On album highlight "The Moment," Nicolay nods to Kompakt-esque techno and New Jersey electronica's tradition of more visceral thump as Coleman belts out, "Show me a place where I belong/ And show me a love that I can feel/ Tell me you'll stay by my side for life/ Not just a moment." When the production opens up to multiple genres at once and Coleman opens his heart, Love in Flying Colors wins with a singular kind of sincerity.
Like all Foreign Exchange records, Love in Flying Colors adjusts mainstream music trends to fit its own underground logic. Considering Kanye West's foray into paranoid electronica on Yeezus, The Foreign Exchange's embrace of house's communal power is refreshing. What's more, between Authenticity and this album, indie-friendly blogs and websites began praising "alt R&B"—the experimental, open-eared, moody music of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and others. That's right: The stuff The Foreign Exchange has been making for years suddenly got "cool." But Coleman and Rook made something grand and glowing, not something gloomy. By existing in their own little world and following their muse rather than that of cool, they remain on their own self-made curve.
Label: +FE Music
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stay restless."