For The Foreign Exchange, romance has often been communicated through the parlance of war.
On the group’s 2010 album, Authenticity, released around the time Little Brother finally reached its end, Phonte Coleman sang, “Love is at worst an excuse, at best it’s a truce/So what is the use?”
But five years later, on the new Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey, The Foreign Exchange offer up a sunny semi-sequel to that brooding, bitter moment, revealing Coleman to be a newly enlightened romantic pacifist. He focuses on being openhearted rather than worrying so much about being the chump on the losing end of an argument. “Hard to believe it, but I’ll tell you the truth/Lay down your weapon, let’s just call it a truce,” the hook offers here. “White flags a-waving in the distance is true/Nobody wins, so let’s just call it a truce.”
As a whole, The Foreign Exchange seems more open to acceptance than ever before. To wit, Zo! coproduces the entire album alongside co-founder Nicolay Rook, while singers Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden (who sings the hook on “Truce”) are now proper pieces of The Foreign Exchange. They give voice to the women whom the group’s earlier songs often talked at, not with. This process began on 2013’sLove in Flying Colors, a busied-R&B-meets-acid house explosion of romantic love. But this new installment prioritizes go-for-broke sincerity. “Beside me, you guide me, you wipe away my tears/So why won’t you, why don’t you, say you won’t disappear?” guest Carlitta Durand candidly asks.
This radical sincerity finds the group taking more risks, too. On “Asking For a Friend,” a tough dance track with cozy disco affectations, Coleman talk-sings in a faux-sophisticated accent that recalls Rick James, RuPaul, Cameo’s Larry Blackmon and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s Geoffrey the Butler. It will be a hoot at their live shows, sure, but for some, it might seem only like a lark here. The same goes for “Work It to the Top,” where Coleman whines his best Steve Arrington impression. These tracks play up old R&B’s silliness, challenging recent trends toward expensive, serious facsimiles of R&B past: the Weeknd, FKA twigs, Shamir. Coleman, instead, calls it like it is, taking the piss out of retro-maniacal worship and reminding people that shit doesn’t have to be so serious all the time.
When The Foreign Exchange wants to get serious, though, they do, as on a couple of earned Stevie Wonder approximations (“Sevenths and Ninths” and “Face In the Reflection”) and “Body,” a heartening soul-house expression of wanting to stay inside rather than head out to the club. For so long, the idea pimped by a certain kind of pop-avoidant R&B is that, by being mature, one must play it straight. Like Love in Flying Colors before it, Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey adds an affable, approachable layer to The Foreign Exchange’s general sophisticationwelcoming, even when at war.
Label: +FE Music
Correction: Due to an editing error, this review originally stated that Authenticity was The Foreign Exchange’s debut. It was not.