Phonte Coleman, the rapping, singing half of the hip-hop/R&B duo the Foreign Exchange, has a complicated relationship with religion.
When he was growing up, he detested the mandatory trips to his grandmother’s baptist church, so he joined the choir just to make the ordeal more palatable. At least from the choir stand there was an added element of entertainment. Stationed behind the preacher, young Phonte could gaze upon the flock and see who was fanning themselves, who was trying not to fall asleep and who was struggling to stay on beat.
“For me it was very much a training ground in some ways,” Phonte said. “I honestly wish I would have took it more seriously at that time. A lot of my singing and vocal arrangements, it was really just self-taught in a lot of ways. Had I been paying more attention in choir practice and not just f—ing around … I’m sure I missed out on a lot of crucial lessons that would have served me better in the end.”
Now that he’s an adult, Phonte still doesn’t care much for church. He’ll go — reluctantly. But he also admits that maybe he’s missing something.
“I will say this: church now is a lot different than it was when I was growing up. Back when I was going to church, church was church,” Phonte said. “Like, it was old school, fire-and-brimstone f—ing baptist church, you know what I mean? ‘You are going to hell, you sinner.’ It was that old-time religion, so to speak.
“And now, church is like the f—ing club! I found a clip of a church — I think it was in Boston — of this dude [Pastor Jebediah] rapping. He was rapping over the Bobby Shmurda instrumental in church, you know what I’m saying? You got people rapping over Bobby Shmurda in church now. [Erica Campbell] got her jam now, ‘I Luh God.’ It’s like a trap anthem for church… It’s the club! You get your religion, you can date. It’s like Tinder. Yo, the church is amazing now. If I was a 13-year-old now in 2015 going to church, I’d probably be having the time of my f—ing life.”
As much as he dreaded his weekly doses of liturgy, its influences have been evident in the Foreign Exchange’s unique blend of hip-hop, R&B, electronica and jazz for years now, but perhaps never quite so overtly as they are in the duo’s fifth studio offering, “Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey,” out Aug. 21. Of course, those influences have been remixed with Phonte’s distinctive brand of sophisticated irreverence and set to beats by Nicolay, the Dutch-born producer who makes up the other half of the group.
If anything, “Milk and Honey’s” seventh track, “Body,” is straight out of the Song of Solomon, the Old Testament book that features passages like this one: “Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.”
“Body’s” lyrics and driving two-step groove are a celebration of the fertility and bliss milk and honey have come to symbolize. It’s about wanting to curl up with your boo-thang when it’s too cold to go outside. Imagine if the essences of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and Big Boi’s line from “SpottieOttieDopalicious” (I walked up on her and was almost paralyzed/Her neck was smelling sweeter than a plate of yams with extra syrup/Eyes beaming like four karats apiece just blindin’ a n—-) got together and had a kid. That’s “Body.”
“I don’t want to go out to no club tonight/I just want your body,” Phonte croons. “And if I can’t have your love right here all myself, I don’t want nobody.”
Okay, so maybe it’s just a song about cuffing season, but in Phonte and Nicolay’s hands, it gets buffed up to add a touch of class and romance. And even though the song is about cold-weather coupling, Nicolay insisted that any resemblance in the beat to Missy Elliott’s “One Minute Man” is purely coincidental.
“I have not thought of that particular track since it came out,” he said.
Phonte and Nic have spliced slower, more introspective songs in between in between the album’s dance cuts. The comparatively somber chords of “Sevenths and Ninths,” “Truce” and “Face in the Reflection” will make you wonder if Phonte went through a breakup as he was writing. “This is probably the first single FE record I wrote, like I wrote it when I was single,” Phonte said. “At the time when, I was coming off a breakup, but it wasn’t a breakup record in the way ‘Authenticity’ was a breakup record. ‘Authenticity’ was the precursor to a breakup record. I wrote a lot of that before my divorce and then right before I got divorced, that’s when I wrote ‘Charity Starts At Home,’ my solo record. So those two records were like book ends in a lot of ways.”
Phonte likened “Milk and Honey” to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” “I just like the way Chaucer inhabited every character, so every tale, every story was told by a different person, and he would write in that person’s voice,” he said. “… All the records beforehand were very personal. This one is personal in some ways, but I really wanted to get into the idea of inhabiting another character and getting to another person’s voice.”
Foreign Exchange fans will notice how the group’s sound has evolved since Nicolay released “City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto” earlier this year. Even though it’s a solo album, Phonte collaborated on it, and on “Milk and Honey” you can hear the influence, especially in the drum beats, of the dance-heavy party atmosphere from their concerts in South Africa.
There’s always been an element of maturity about the Foreign Exchange, part of which comes from the inflections of experimental jazz that dot its music. But it’s present in other ways, too — namely, Phonte’s desire to deliver as succinct and complete a package as possible (“Sevenths and Ninths,” is less than two minutes long; the whole album is less than 40). With 10 tracks, Phonte and Nicolay have embraced brevity in hopes of purging “Milk and Honey” of the self-indulgent acoustic flotsam that encumbers so many albums; Phonte cited Natalie Cole’s “Inseparable” as a goal worth striving for. “If it was up to me there would be no song over two minutes ever in life,” Phonte said, “Every song would be like, a minute 45. But Nic is very much like — he’ll make an eight-minute house version and s—. But I like the idea, as a writer, of forcing yourself to make a statement really quickly and get it in as little space as possible.”
Recently, The Verge published an update to Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary.” In doing so, the site defined an album as “an antiquated custom in which musicians would bundle 2-5 functional songs with 5-10 sub-prime factory remnants.”
“That’s so f–ing real,” Phonte said.
“That’s facts only right there,” Nicolay chimed in. “You had me at antiquated.”
With its intricate footwork, bumping house beat and Phonte’s over-articulated office vamping, the video for “Milk and Honey’s” lead single, “Asking For A Friend,” feels like one big wink toward the bourgeoisie black folks who comprise the most loyal elements of the Foreign Exchange’s fan base as well as a nod to Harlem’s gay ball culture. A couple of years ago, Very Smart Brothas name-checked Phonte in its “Bougie Black Person’s Guide to the Perfect Level of Blackness.” Phonte, Damon Young wrote, is an “uber-talented rapper who doesn’t rap on his albums anymore — which makes him perfectly Black for those seeking that perfect level of Blackness.”
In the video, Phonte dances with his friend Holly Johnson, a former ballroom dancing instructor turned comedian. “I’m heavy on the scale, but I’m light on my feet,” he said.
The fake British accent came from Rick James and “Superfreak” and Phonte was inspired to reintroduce the sing-rapping of Marvin Gaye’s “Ego Trippin Out.”
“You don’t really see a lot of humor, I think, in R&B anymore,” Phonte explained. “I won’t say it’s not allowed, but it’s not something that you see. I mean, you hear some R&B songs that are funny. A lyric like [the popular line about booty and groceries], that is a hilarious f–ing lyric, but I don’t think [Jhene Aiko] intended it to be. It’s hilarious for all the wrong reasons, but it’s hilarious nonetheless.”
Phonte and Nicolay have been collaborating for more than 10 years now; they released their debut album “Connected” in 2004. Despite the fact that Phonte is a rapper who doesn’t much rap anymore, their intimate partnership is similar to that of Run the Jewels or Outkast.
“It’s one thing to find somebody that you make great music with and being able to enjoy the fruits of that labor,” Nicolay said. “It’s really another thing altogether when you find somebody that looks at things with the same sort of adventurous mind and is willing to take chances.”
In 2008, they released “Daykeeper,” a quiet, sensuously contemplative track as the lead single for “Leave it All Behind.” It was a risky move to position the song as an establishing shot for the album — it’s a seemingly unimposing track that lulls you into a state of reminiscing about a past love — but the Recording Academy took note. “Daykeeper” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative performance. Seven years later, having cemented their reputation as purveyors of sophisticated chill music, and with the rhythms and dance-centric ethos of Soweto thrumming through their bones, Phonte and Nicolay shook things up again with “Asking For A Friend.”
While much of the Foreign Exchange’s music is inspired by romantic relationships, its trajectory owes equal credit Phonte and Nicolay’s ability to keep creative stagnation at bay. They contribute heavily to each other’s solo projects, but they still keep their distance. When they first formed the Foreign Exchange, they were separated by the Atlantic. Nicolay, who is Dutch, lived in the Netherlands and Phonte lived in Raleigh, N.C., and they made “Connected” via e-mail.
Now, Nicolay lives two hours away in Wilmington. After getting his visa, he moved there in 2006 and traded the bike culture of Holland for a car and a serious relationship. Despite their relative proximity, he and Phonte still work in their respective spaces.
“It’s just a sausage factory,” Phonte said. “You just want to eat sausage. You don’t want to see how it’s made. Nic, he goes to his sausage factory and he makes his sausage. I make my sausage in my sausage factory, and then we have breakfast together.” With each album, they cycle in featured vocalists. This time around, Carmen Rodgers, Shana Tucker, Tamisha Warden and Carlitta Durand provide the accompanying eggs, biscuits, bacon and grits.
“I guess both understanding and trusting each other in terms of the course that we plotted out over the course of these past 10 years, that’s when you realize that you have something really, really special going here that you just don’t find with a lot of people in life,” Nicolay said. “You just don’t get to that level of understanding and of being able to make music without having to say anything or without having to put it in words, knowing instinctively where to go and where not to go — that’s a very rare thing in life. I think as we’ve been working together over the last 10 years, I think that that trust and that relationship has only gotten deeper.”