A grown and sophisticated crowd was on hand last night to greet the Foreign Exchange, the R&B outfit headed by producer Nicolay and vocalist Phonte, for their very first Seattle appearance. With two synths and a powerhouse collection of singers, the Foreign Exchange jammed out for over two hours, managing to blend the sensuality of R&B and the liveliness of hip-hop to produce an impressive night of music and a very entertaining platform for the enigmatic, bow-tied Phonte. While Phonte's better known project, rap duo Little Brother, often attracts a younger and more self-consciously underground audience, last night's crowd was mature, attentive, and filled with couples who responded enthusiastically to the Foreign Exchange's smooth and unabashedly soulful sound. "This isn't just music, this is a ministry," said Phonte after one of his many tangents on the art of love, and judging by the hands in the air, he was preaching to the choir.
Rapper Phonte ministers to the hip-hop and R&B masses last night
To think that North Carolina-based Phonte and Nicolay, from the Netherlands, met on an online message board five years ago to become the Foreign Exchange that performed last night is an incredible testament to the musical daring of their partnership. The title of their 2008 sophomore release, Leave It All Behind, was equal parts commentary on the pair's sonic evolution--from fanciful yet solidly hip-hop to an ambient R&B--as well as the subject matter addressed therein. Phonte, famous for his often cynical wit as a rapper, embraced love, relationships and its inevitable complications with an audacious sincerity in Leave It All Behind, crooning his emotional insight over tender, introspective and synthy compositions by Nicolay. Phonte himself is a respectable, though not virtuosic, singer, but what he and Nicolay have together is the ability to craft rock-solid tunes to be taken to remarkable heights by the right combination of instrumentalists and standout vocalists. To this end, last night's showcase of songs from their album was a triumph: from the gorgeously haunting "Daykeeper" to the groove-filled "Take Off The Blues," the backing band Zo! & The ELs--with a grinning Nicolay getting down on a Yamaha Motif 7--delivered a rich backdrop for supporting singers Darien Brockington, Carlitta Durand, and the absolutely knock-out Yahzarah to fill the space with nuanced harmonies for a polished presentation of really well-written love songs.
Yazarah and Phonte engange in a romantic reenactment
What was probably most memorable to the audience, however, were the humorous elements of the set. Phonte, who is famous within Little Brother for making tongue-in-cheek alter-egos, commanded the stage with levity and inserted patter where ever he could. During "All Or Nothing," he launched into a veritable ten-minute sermon of real-talk relationship advice: "You must love a man in his totality!" he declared, petitioning for women to love the more slovenly sides of men along with the supportive; he also advised, "If you wanna keep the peace, all you gotta do is curve your back." Most entertaining were the musical reinterpretations, ranging from a couple medleys of bubblegum-rap hits (stuffing "Turn My Swag On," "Halle Berry," "Make It Rain" and a hint of "Tip Drill" into one) to a hilarious reggae parody whose chorus was all about rice and peas. While not detracting from the lovely soul of their original material, the lighter, animated segments were what drew in and engaged those not enveloped in the arms of a significant other.
It's my hope that the next time the Foreign Exchange comes to town, they'll have undergone another transformation and continue to push themselves into new sounds, moods and messages. While they've got a great handle on R&B, I am more excited about their creative potential. What's sure is that there's an audience in Seattle eager to receive them again. It was a memorable night of grown-ass love tunes, and a perfect cap to a warm and musically awesome Seattle summer.