By channeling the spirit and sound of early-'90s Native Tongues New York hip-hop out of an unlikely home in North Carolina, Little Brother's 2003 breakthrough The Listening illustrated hip-hop's remarkable ability to render geography and time obsolete. Group member Phonte further underlined rap's power to transcend regional, cultural, and racial divides by forming The Foreign Exchange, which teams him with Nicolay, a white producer and multi-instrumentalist from the Netherlands. The two artists connected, appropriately enough, via the online fan-mecca okayplayer.com. They share undeniable musical chemistry, one developed as Nicolay sent Phonte beats to rhyme over, and the rapper sent back vocals from himself and Little Brother's extended Justus League family, as well as assorted kindred spirits.
"Rap should be beautiful like raindrops or walks in the park," Phonte raps on "Downtime." The sentiment could easily sound mawkish, but it seems fitting at the end of The Foreign Exchange's Connected, a debut album of uncommon sonic delicacy. As a lyricist, Phonte works hard to convey how hard he works. His warm, intimate raps defiantly stress the least romantic aspects of being a rapper, addressing the mundane challenges of endless stints on the road, marathon recording sessions, struggles to make ends meet, and the difficulty of maintaining relationships with family and friends in spite of habitual absences. Here and with Little Brother, Phonte cultivates the appealing persona of the affable B-boy next door, a self-professed "average cat that goes to work, freestyles, and kicks battle-raps."
From the blunted carousel groove of "Raw Life" to the symphonic grandeur of "Let's Move," Nicolay's sublime tracks make the famously mellow beats of Little Brother producer 9th Wonder sound as agitated as The Bomb Squad collaborating with El-P. As its moody, evocative, soft-focus cover depicting shadowy lovers pressed against a fence attests, Connected seems gloriously unafraid of tenderness, quiet, and vulnerability. Those qualities led Phonte's Little Brother partner Big Pooh to pejoratively deem Nicolay's twilight music "soft-ass, sweet-ass, pretty-ass shit," but they prove central to the album's laid-back charm.