Wistful, contemplative, and darkly honest, what Authenticity loses in the humor and haunting refrains of its predecessor it gains in...well...authenticity! Leave It All Behind, one of the best albums of any generation, was always going to be a tough act for the North Carolina meets The Netherlands collective to follow. The good news is that The Foreign Exchange production quality, feel, and signature sound of LIAB bleeds over into Authenticity with enough residue that ensures the two are undeniably in relationship with one another, if not always peers. Nonetheless, Authenticity has an attractive DNA all its own, one greatly benefiting from the evolving and constantly surprising talents of its frontman, Phonte.
Wistful, contemplative, and darkly honest, what Authenticity loses in the humor and haunting refrains of its predecessor it gains in...well...authenticity! Leave It All Behind, one of the best albums of any generation, was always going to be a tough act for the North Carolina meets The Netherlands collective to follow. The good news is that The Foreign Exchange production quality, feel, and signature sound of LIAB bleeds over into Authenticity with enough residue that ensures the two are undeniably in relationship with one another, if not always peers. Nonetheless, Authenticity has an attractive DNA all its own, one greatly benefiting from the evolving and constantly surprising talents of its frontman, Phonte. No longer obviously couched by the proven vocal talents of vets Yahzarah, Musinah, and Darien Brockington, Phonte's more assured vocals fly solo through this project's misty skies considerably more than on previous FE offerings. His songwriting also bears greater distinction. Lyrically bare and just shy of the blues, Phonte's philosophical pen goes to the heart of men, pulling the covers off male bravado to reveal a cavernous sensitivity and their often masked insecurities. Authenticity's uniquely autumn atmosphere, matter-of-fact vocals, and august, love weary lyricism invites travellers into yet another magical world orbiting in FE's ever-expanding electro-soul universe.
With an indie release as major as the Grammy-nominated sophomore project of the Phonte and Nicolay team, Leave It All Behind (2008), comparisons are impossible to avoid. The Durham singer/MC and Dutch producer duo borne from a transatlantic collaboration nearly seven years ago on 2004's Connected seems accepting of this inevitability. With a definitive nod to their recent best-seller history, they chose to open Authenticity with the same subterranean sound effect of the dazzling LIAB opener, "Daykeeper." "The Last Fall" sets the somber mood of the project with a cynic's surly anthem against love, or more accurately, a failed love. Producer Nicolay's mood-matching electric noir soundscape for "The Last Fall" is perhaps one of the most driving of this 11-track journey, it's also rare in its relative fullness for the more musically stripped project. Less sweeping and infectious in enveloping melodies and layered vocals than LIAB, the bracing breeze flowing through the more temperate weather of Authenticity is more honest in some ways than their prior collection of romantic grooves and slick multi-voices. Where Phonte was still maintaining a toehold in the comedy and liberating conventions of hip hop on LIAB, the former Little Brother frontman here is a straight-ahead songman baring his soul about the ambivalent nature of love, the tension of intimate relationships, and one's walk with God.
More trusting of his presence and singing talent, Phonte is the guiding force on 90% of these tracks. His raspy, contemplative toned instrument is strong and signature enough a lead to pull off this conceit, though the absence of Musinah, Phonte's duet partner of such sweeping numbers as "Daykeeper," is felt throughout this male heavy project. With the exception of Chantae Caan's supporting vocals on "Laughing At Your Plans" and Yahzarah's doo wops on "All Roads" and lead on the mournful acoustic closer, "This City Ain't The Same Without You," there is little in the way of female voices, and yet little is missed in the way of sensitivity.
Abandoning all machismo, Phonte bravely digs deeper into the nuances, motivations, and psychology of love and relationships with an intelligence that's rare to be found in contemporary soul. A retreating surrender on the epiphany "Fight For Love" (I don't wanna be a soldier anymore/because the war never ends and no one ever wins/I don't understand why we should fight for love/either it ain't or it is) is just the first layer Phonte's willingness to peel back in his melancholic considerations. A stark study of people hungrier for the illusion of a perfect love rather than for the harsh realities of the partner before them, "Authenticity" gets to the core of more relationships than is comfortable to consider: she wants me to fill her need/she begs for authenticity/you don't want truth from me/you just want what you want. He takes his internalized musings to new depths on the slim, but poignant "Eyes To The Sky," in questioning whether he is using relationships to hide from life. This sentiment is advanced on "All Roads," where the all-consuming nature of love is considered an inevitable by-product of that peculiar malady. The single, "Maybe She'll Dream of Me," is atypical of Authenticity in its mid-groove buoyancy and more armored, if only with a swaggering wit, approach to the still vulnerable discussion of obtaining a new love from someone the hopeful considers more beautiful and, perhaps, unattainable.
Clearly prepared to hold fast to that love should he ever win it, Phonte's respect for that emotion is most evident in the ferocity with which he and FE camper Darien Brockington sing the hook on what I suspect will be radio's second single, "Don't Wait:" if someone loves you back/don't give it away/don't hold you back/don't wait/ohh don't wait. Wearing his fear on his sleeve, Phonte brings the seductive tenor of hipster darling Jesse Boykins III right into his apprehensive ruminations on the deceptively bright "Make Me A Fool." In feel, execution and arrangement, the partnerships between Phonte and Brockington and Boykins, respectively, mark for the most highly listenable, compelling works of Authenticity.
What was begun as an introduction on the music boards of Okayplayer.com between a North Carolina MC and a producer from the Netherlands has since deservingly grown into one of the most recognizable brands in independent music. Authenticity only adds to The Foreign Exchange label legacy that feels akin to Motown, with a trademark sound and some of the best singers, rappers, songwriters, and producers of this era-from Zo! and Median to Yahzarah and Carlitta Durand-calling it home, some if only by extension. The handful of folksy, acoustic singer-songwriter tracks juxtaposed against the dominating chillout, electrosoul on Authenticity co-exist in a marriage that never feels forced and is always cohesive thanks to its vibrant producers. Phonte's evolution from MC to credible vocalist and song craftsman is all the more inspiring here. Personnel decisions for Authenticity that make it an easier album to tour may nonetheless challenge this collective to maintain the kinetic, danceable energy of their current live show, particularly with so few new tracks that inspire movement. But, for those of us staring out the window at the autumn leaves and wrapping ourselves in warming throws, nothing will sound quite as soothing an accompaniment at home. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson