On May 5, the music industry’s biggest news of the day was that Rihanna –pop’s reining bad girl and fashion icon – decided to bolt her well-appointed perch at Def Jam for Roc Nation. The ingenue’s departure for Jay-Z’s musical and sports-management imprint solidified her status in the rap impresario’s growing constellation of stars, and completed Mr. Carter’s metamorphosis into the industry’s most formidable presence.
Simultaneously, across the East River in a nondescript building in trendy Williamsburg, under-appreciated R&B/electronica collective Foreign Exchange took to the stage. The multi-talented group performed in Brooklyn as part of the first leg in a whistle-stop world tour to promote Love in Flying Colors, their latest album. The unlikely crew—fronted by indie rapper extraordinaire Phonte Coleman and Dutch producer Nicolay—regaled a packed standing-room only crowd for an unforgettable two hours of musical bliss at the Williamsburg Music Hall.
Juxtaposing Rihanna’s label jumping with The Foreign Exchange’s performance (where attendance is likely smaller than the average number of people in the restroom at one of Riri’s concerts) may seem counter intuitive. In reality, the two seemingly disparate events reflect the odd –and unfortunate –realities of modern music. The licentious pop princess is one of music’s most bankable stars, with taste (or more accurately, lack thereof) in hairstyles and men that generates breathless headlines, and a multi-platinum artist who has won dozens of music awards.
Compare that list to the talented, hard-grinding yet perennially ignored The Foreign Exchange and it tells you all you need to know about how far afield musical mores have drifted. It’s an old lament to be sure, yet a logical one that bears repeating. Ladies and bearded gents, the struggle is most definitely real.
But a group as talented as The Foreign Exchange deserves to be evaluated on its own merit, even if they play exclusively to the usual crowd of dirty-backpack toting, hipper-than-thou city dwellers. Hip-hop lore has it that Coleman and Nicolay engineered their 2004 sleeper hit “Connected” via e-mail and instant messaging – never having once met in person. North Carolina-native Coleman – he of Little Brother fame – has largely forsaken rap in order to croon over “pretty” stuff like love, relationships and good, clean fun.
Time, and the evolution into an alterna-soul singer, hasn’t diminished Phonte’s rougher edges. The rapper cum singer was in full Tourette Syndrome regalia as he belted out a host of songs from The Foreign Exchange’s impressive stable of hits, while putting his own inimitable spin on classics like Sade’s “Smooth Operator” (no, really) and The Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love.”
Backed by Nicolay and a clique of unheralded singers and instrumentalists, it should be said that Coleman is hardly Teddy Pendergrass. Then again, he really doesn’t need to be. One of the beauteous things about The Foreign Exchange is their musical alchemy, and not unlike Voltron: potent alone, yet nearly unstoppable when brought together. As the group’s frontman told the crowd in Williamsburg – with all the fervor and cadence of a Baptist preacher at a revival – “this is not just music, this is ministry. Music is feeling, music is healing…when done properly, [it] can make all the problems of your life seem OK.”
And on that sonorous note, The Foreign Exchange took the crowd through a journey of all four albums churned out over a decade, that few music aficionados have heard of, or could even appreciate. Their suite of songs, such as the up-tempo ballad “Call it Home,” and the infectious feel-good anthem “Take Off the Blues,” are best appreciated live, preferably in small venues. An adoring crowd called The Foreign Exchange back for three separate encore sets –no easy feat given that the group started more than an hour late, on a Monday night no less. The capstone of the night was The Foreign Exchange’s mesmerising first hit “Come Around”, which had the audience lifting lighted smartphones and singing along in hypnotic approval. Phonte and Company proved that even if the mainstream would rather listen to Rihanna and refuses to acknowledge quality independent music, it’s still out there.
Bearded scribe for CNBC by day, crime-fighting couch potato by night. Gym rat in between, and movie junkie on alternate weekends. Former Reuters and Dow Jones/WSJ reporter. Also a contributor at TheGrio.com