Connected will always be that album for me. The ultimate feel good hip-hop record; an intimate and personal album of inviting soul and striving-and-surviving rhymes. Listening to this one never fails to put me in a good state of mind, and I’m captivated at how well these songs sound.
Which makes it all the more mind-blowing that the two artists largely responsible for it never actually met during the making of it.
The Foreign Exchange is the collaboration of singer and emcee Phonte Coleman, formerly of Little Brother, and producer Nicolay. Nowadays, FE is best known as a really dope R&B outfit, but back in the early 2000s they were two dudes who encountered each other on the message boards of the hip-hop site Okayplayer (founded by ?uestlove of The Roots). Phonte was in North Carolina, and Nicolay was in the Netherlands. They started working together, trading music and lyrics back and forth across the pond through email, file sharing networks and hell, even mailing burned CDs. They were kind of pioneers at that, and while nowadays artists collaborate via the Internet all the time, in 2003 it was still new and uncharted territory, with technology just starting to open the gates. Phonte supplied vocals to Nic’s productions, bringing in Little Brother and NC rappers who composed the Justus League collective to add to the mix, and soon FE took shape. Just a year after LB’s first album dropped, Phonte and Nicolay put out Connected.
This album was a revelation for me back around 2006 or so. I was in college, just starting to get involved with old school and underground hip-hop, and the Foreign Exchange was one group that was pivotal in shaping my tastes and interests in music. Nicolay’s production is just so smooth and collected, his grooves are unparalleled here, and Phonte and friends brought the lyrics to match, making for a top-notch mix of R&B and rap. I played this record non-stop in my school days, chucking it on the MP3 player for the bus rides to class, playing in the background while I studied, throwing tracks on a mix CD to turn up in my mom’s car when I was back at home, and listens like “Nic’s Groove” were perfect for vibing out to in your spot with a ladyfriend. Those were the days.
It’s this track right here though, which has really stayed with me for more than a decade. “Happiness” ranks up there as one of the finest songs I’ve ever heard, and according to Last.fm (do people still use that?) one of my most played songs in my music collection. It’s a beautiful listen, from Nicolay’s ethereal beat to Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh‘s rhymes about perseverance and positivity through struggles…this was my soundtrack for much of my twenties, and the message has resonated with me at several points in my life. That hook? “Good people, good loving, good music in my life, it makes me happy…” That’s really all you need.