Let's face it, The Foreign Exchange's Leave It All Behind is a tough act to follow. Released in October 2008, the album overshadowed everything released that year, wound up atop many "Best Of" lists (including being named Album of the Year by this music blog), was home to the GRAMMY-nominated single "Daykeeper" and quite literally caught everyone out there with how unbelievably awesome the whole package was from start to finish. How do you top that? Well, if you're The Foreign Exchange, the goal isn't to repeat what you've already done, which they've made quite clear throughout their career. Everyone thought that they had Nicolay and Phonte pegged after Connected dropped in 2004, but LIAB was a thematic and sonic evolution from their stellar debut. Focused on celebrating the highs and recognizing the lows of relationships, there was less hip hop, more soul and it was all good. So with the release of the group's third album, Authenticity, if there is one thing to be sure of, it's that another surprise is awaiting once you sit down and press play.
A left turn from the happy, happy, joy, joy of Leave It All Behind, Authenticity is melancholy and emo, yet earnest and honest. Listening to this album--at least the first half--is like when you find out that Santa Claus isn't real, that there is no Tooth Fairy and that Prince Charming isn't coming to save you. As a matter of fact, Prince Charming--played by Phonte--has a few things to get off his chest.
"I'm never gonna love again," Tay declares in the album opener, "The Last Fall," over an equally dramatic electronic landscape supplied by Nicolay. Phonte's forlornness continues on the title track, "Authenticity." In this age of everybody claiming to keep it real, he calls his lover out for not wanting to hear the truth because she wouldn't like it. Telling the truth is hard, but sometimes hearing it is even harder. The result of all that honesty leaves Phonte with his "Eyes to the Sky" on the third track, also the shortest cut on the album. What this song lacks in length it more than makes up for with its impactful lyrics as he continues to reflect on life and love.
"Eyes to the Sky" segues seamlessly into "All Roads," and its as if the clouds have parted and a ray of sunshine dares peak through. Nicolay lays a more upbeat foundation for Phonte who now realizes that his heart is leading him back home. The First Lady of The Foreign Exchange, YahZarah, makes a fleeting appearance, coloring in some sweet background vocals and adding to the song's optimism.
One of my favorites on this collection is "Fight For Love." Phonte croons some of the realest lyrics I've ever heard when he says, "I don't understand why we should fight for love/Either it is or it ain't." Sade can be a soldier of love all she wants, but sometimes it's not a battle worth fighting. A song with the very opposite sentiment, "Don't Wait," is my other favorite. The funkiest song to be found on the record features fellow +FE all-stars Darien Brockington sharing lead with Phonte and Zo! getting his Roger Troutman on with the talkbox. Nicolay crafts a mid-tempo dance floor ditty that starts off with a brief conversation between Tay and D.Brock before the former takes his place at the altar. He's met "the one," and it's time to put her love on lockdown. Imagine that.
Rounding out the album are two more collaborations--one with wild-haired heartthrob Jesse Boykins III and Median spitting a few bars on "Make Me A Fool" and the folksy duet "Laughing At Your Plans" featuring Chantae Cann--another solo Phonte joint and YahZarah returning to close it down on the sentimental yet tortured "This City Ain't the Same Without You."
What you'll immediately notice when listening to Authenticity other than its brevity (the album is 38 minutes long), is that it's very Phonte-heavy, which is fine. +FE's frontman shoulders this album and steps into his greatness as a singer and songwriter. His synergy with Nicolay remains, and together they've once again crafted an album of forward-thinking, genre-defying, relatable hits that may take you a few spins to get into, but when you do, it'll be in heavy rotation.
The third chapter in The Foreign Exchange's saga does what any good page-turning novel does--it engrosses you in a tale, then just when you think you have everything figured out and know what's going to happen next, the plot twists, throwing you for a loop. Authenticity is the latest twist for The Foreign Exchange, and their musical story is only getting juicier.