Artist: The Foreign ExchangeTitle: ConnectedRating: 3 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Mark Cilantro

Way back in 2002 I was in Cue’s record store in the heart of Philly right before The Roots Phrenology hit the streets. Steph Tatas had the advance promo copy and a friend and I were bugging off of “Water.” At that point he told me, “Every now and then you hear a record that shows you where you want to go as an artist.” About a month later we were in the office discussing Jazzy Jeff’s The Magnificent and I remarked that this was the record that was going to redefine the sound of underground/indie Hip-Hop. It had been a couple of years since Black Star and the belt was vacant. The team that Jeff had assembled had combined the purist aesthetic of the Fat Beats crowd, the R&B sensibility of the Black middle class, and the ground level authenticity of the streets of Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. Why am I talking about a Jazzy Jeff record when this is supposed to be a Foreign Exchange review? Because Connected proves my Nostradamus (or is that Nastradamus) like prediction of 2002 correct.

Foreign Exchange is Dutch producer Nicolay and 1/3 of Little Brother, Phonte. This is the 3rd solo project from the Justus League crew (following God’s Stepson and Murs 3:16) and the 1st time the LB emcees have stepped outside of 9th Wonder production. The story goes that Phonte and Nicolay only met after the record was done and only a few months before the release. They corresponded via email and sent each other tracks and vocals over instant messenger; truly a testament to the digital nature of our generation and this industry. But as I overheard someone say at the Beat Society showcase held at the NYC’s Knitting Factory, “Why should I care?” Now, I am not as much of a hater, or maybe I am too much of a nerd, to agree 100% with that statement, but whatever the story is, it comes down to the beats and rhymes.

Nicolay does a fine job and comes up with some gems, but at the end of the day this record is designed to quench your Little Brother fix. As much as Little Brother are viewed as the descendants of A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock and CL Smooth or De La Soul, they are more akin to being the younger sibling of Common. Phonte’s throwback and every man appeal was pioneered by the C to the O, double M-O-N. “Raw Life” reaffirms Phonte’s disdain for men with sandals and the bohemian lifestyle that we first heard on The Listening, “Bringing it live with no disguise or camouflage / drop the yo-yo and stop niggas from putting sandals on / we handle ours from booking to rhyme management.” On “Brave New World” Phonte rocks over one of Nicolay’s best offerings about 9/11, health benefits, SARS, MTV Cribs and the eternal capitalistic paper chase. “Now we travel worldwide full throttle / scared to catch SARS so we cancelled all the shows in Toronto / This rap shit ain’t all about hoes and supermodels / it’s more about me making this money to pay my car note.”

Other standouts including guest appearances from D.C. area’s own Critically Acclaimed and Oddissee and Ken Starr. Big Pooh and various Justus League members appear throughout but their contribution to the project is marginal at best. It should be noted that similar to the aforementioned Jazzy Jeff’s Magnificent there is a strong R&B (more rhythm, less bullsh*t) influence on this record. So those looking for the strict boom-bap may be disappointed while those who want a little smoothness will be pleasantly surprised.

The new direction of post Native Tongues MC’s is a safe one. This is the safest record yet. It is carefully polished and designed to alienate few and recruit many. It would have been interesting to see Nicolay and Phonte takes some more chances and open up some more chambers. But in a world where fundamentals have become superfluous, if not an unnecessary ingredient for success, we need to count our blessings.