Photo by Tobias Rose

Ladies, the Foreign Exchange is concerned about you. Producer Nicolay Rook and singer/MC Phonte Coleman care, and they’re here to help. How? With the duo’s third album, Authenticity, which, they jokingly claim contains more valuable information than you’ll find in any Cosmo.

“I’m giving up all the trade secrets, ladies. You wanna get behind enemy lines? Ima let you know,” laughs Phonte over the phone from his home in North Carolina. “I’m letting y’all read the playbook.”

Authenticity is the follow-up to the Foreign Exchange’s first full-fledged turn to indie R&B and soul on 2008’s Leave It All Behind. Through a similar method of lush production, emphasis on song structure and soft edges, the new album finds the duo continuing its exploration of other musical possibilities outside of their traditional foundation of hip-hop. The pair’s recent output has sufficiently excited both of its members so much they made the Foreign Exchange their main focus.

Earlier this year, Phonte broke away from the obligations of his widely loved group Little Brother (even Drake purported to be a big fan) to concentrate on the sound that earned the Foreign Exchange a Grammy nomination. And though Netherlands native Nicolay has mainly concerned himself with the duo, his own solo projects, including last year’s City Lights Volume 2: Shibuya, honed in on the sort of looser, more stripped-down production that also serves as the bed for the Foreign Exchange’s current release.

“It made more sense for us to continue in that direction, rather than just trying to go back to hip-hop,” Phonte explains. “In a lot of ways, all of the possibilities in hip-hop we had already heard, we had already done, and we just wanted to keep challenging ourselves.”

The 11-track LP has also pushed the Foreign Exchange closer to finding its own authentic voice—a concept that spurs on the entire album and, as Phonte says, guides many through life. Out of the duo’s three LPs, the latest one is most representative of its desired collective musical footprint. “I think this is the most pure album that we have ever done in terms of the expression of it,” Nicolay says. To reach this point, the duo concentrated on a singer/songwriter-ish emphasis on making a statement via vocals and a piano. Nicolay’s approach to production, consequently, was to keep it as sparse as possible, while also somehow managing to achieve rich melodic instrumentation.

“I think moving away from some of our hip-hop roots gave us the freedom to explore things that, had we stayed in the more hip-hop genre, we would have probably never done.”

The bulk of Authenticity features Phonte singing alongside the very occasional rapped verse. His main lyrical intent was to write words that read like poetry. Phonte wanted to move beyond archetypal R&B subjects and discuss how a man really feels, conveyed in the manner that men, themselves, would talk about it. “So it’s not like on no whiny shit, but it’s just how a man would express himself,” Phonte says. On “Fight For Love” he sings, “I don’t understand why we should fight for love/Either it ain’t or it is.” Phonte says that this is the way most men think. “The truth is out there if you wanna know it!” he exclaims. “You may not like what you find out, but you can’t say I never told you.”