The Foreign Exchange and the Soul Revival

Rap Is Not Pop: The Foreign Exchange and the Soul Revival

Earlier this year, the Foreign Exchange earned a Grammy nomination for “Daykeeper,” a dreamy ballad filled with soft percussion and cooed phrasings of “She Loves Me.” Cited for Best Urban/Alternative Performance, “Daykeeper,” the lead single from 2008’s Leave It All Behind, confirmed that this email correspondence between Durham, North Carolina vocalist Phonte Coleman and Dutch producer Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook has blossomed into a fruitful creative partnership. While it ascends, Phonte’s Little Brother, one of the more influential indie-rap groups of the past decade, lay in tatters. Having never truly recovered from the departure of producer 9th Wonder – although its third and final studio album, 2007’s Getback, was a valiant effort – remaining members Phonte and Big Pooh quietly wound down operations, then officially marked its end with this year’s collection of outtakes, Leftback.

The “rapper-ternt-sanga” phenomenon is well-chronicled, as is the belief that singing offers a wider range of musical possibilities than rapping. (Whether it’s true or not is fodder for another column.) However, just because Phonte isn’t the first rapper – and definitely not the last – to become a soul singer doesn’t mean that he hasn’t brought new ideas to the genre. Far from homogenous, he and other indie-rap artists like Aloe Blacc and Mayer Hawthorne have distinct identities. Each sounds different from the other, and their artistic quirks are transforming our perceptions of hip-hop music.

Ironically, the Foreign Exchange may be the most traditional of the lot. With Little Brother, Phonte was a supremely talented and opinionated rapper. Unafraid to burn bridges, he helped turn the group’s major label bow into 2005’s The Minstrel Show, a scathing indictment of the black entertainment industry. And when he and Nicolay collaborated on the Foreign Exchange’s 2004 debut, Connected, it sounded like a Little Brother side project, with Big Pooh and various members of LB’s Justus League crew chipping in verses. Both projects centered on entrenched ideas about good MC’ing, hip-hop beats, and soul music. The shift from backpack rap dynamics to the smooth and jazzy blues of Leave It All Behind didn’t change that equation. Appropriately, their just-released third album is called Authenticity. Phonte added vocal choruses and adlibs to the LB catalog (often in tandem with Darien Brockington), but Leave It All Behind and Authenticity signal his maturation as a singer. The former found him carrying a strong albeit flat tone, while he adds texture and sonic variety to his performance on the latter. Meanwhile, Nicolay’s production evokes early 80s quiet storm and jazz fusion, from the Linn drum machine beat on the title track to the piano key swoops on “Fight for Love.”

Mayer Hawthorne, the nom de plume for Los Angeles musician Andrew Mayer Cohen, isn’t a natural singer, either, but his slight vocals and creamy falsetto is part of his charm. The most incredible aspect of 2009’s A Strange Arrangement is its fidelity to Philly soul and doo-wop. Its penultimate track, the wondrous “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” seems lifted from the Delfonics’ songbook. In fact, Mayer not only hearkens to soul’s golden age, but faithfully replicates it. When “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” was first released as a heart-shaped vinyl single in 2008, some assumed that it was a previously-unreleased artifact. He bolsters these production stunts with excellent songwriting. The doleful title track, for example, spins around this lovely chorus: “Darling, me and you, we had a strange arrangement/ But you broke all the rules and now I’m playing the fool for love/ Darling yes it’s true, we had a grand engagement/ But I can’t stand by while you break my heart in two.”

Aloe Blacc’s recently released Good Things also closely hews to the retro-soul playbook, thanks to the arrangements of Leon Michaels and Jeff “Dynamite” Silverman (also known as Truth & Soul). Aloe Blacc can’t help but sound contemporary, though, so even as the throwback horns pip on “I Need a Dollar” and gossamer strings swirl on “Take Me Back,” he sings with a strong yet strident voice. He’s also an excellent songwriter. On “I Need a Dollar,” he effortlessly treads a line between pathetic comedy and tragedy as he impersonates a homeless man looking for cash to buy liquor. Its desperate refrain – “I don’t know if I’m walking on solid ground/ ‘Cause everything around me is crumbling down” – holds a mirror to the Great Recession.

The retro-soul phenomenon has been both praised and dismissed as a post-millennium fad, and it’s not hard to imagine that it will eventually sound as dated as the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” swing revival of the 1970s. Yet it holds obvious appeal for onetime B-boys like Mayer, who was originally a DJ and producer in Detroit; and Aloe Blacc, a former rapper with the L.A. indie group Emanon. Crate-digging, or the art of digging for old records with rarely heard gems, is essential to hip-hop culture. Concurrently, there has been a decline of classical hip-hop values in rap. Stars like Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, and Nicki Minaj undoubtedly study Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love, not the Treacherous Three’s “New Rap Language” and Afrika Bambaataa’s Death Mix. As the culture’s mainstream component narrows into a thin technological gloss, with little differentiation between R&B slickness and ringtone rap bounce, some of its innovators head to soul music’s less compromised environs.

Critics and fans often ignored Aloe Blacc’s group Emanon. He didn’t began receiving much deserved acclaim until he switched to singing vocals, first on his solo debut, 2006’s Shine Through, and then on Good Things. The throwback of Good Things’ is clearly indebted to hip-hop. It’s the product of someone who listens to great soul records and maybe samples from them, but didn’t actually perform during that era. But when Aloe Blacc sings, he communicates in a way that everyone can understand – or at least more than the tens of thousands (and I’m being generous here) that bought Emanon’s 2005 album The Waiting Room.

Meanwhile, many people still don’t believe that hip-hop is real music. Or, as Phonte puts it so cogently on “Tigallo from Dolo” from Leftback: “Rappin’ Tay, four-and-a-half mic honoree/ Or singin’ Tay, first-time Grammy nominee?/ N*gga you do the math.”

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This essay was posted November 3 on the Rhapsody SoundBoard blog. I wrote it for my Rap Is Not Pop column.

Photo by Tobias Rose for Kompleks Creative Inc.

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