Q&A: The Foreign Exchange’s Phonte Coleman On How To Make Grown Up R&B That You Can Listen To With Other Men In the Car


When Phonte Coleman, the singing, songwriting half of r&b duo the Foreign Exchange (the other half is producer/multi-instrumentalist Nicolay Rook), talks about the group’s new album Authenticity, he’s close to apologetic. That’s because unlike 2008’s Leave It All Behind, the group’s Grammy-nominated celebration of love’s up-and-down complexities, this new one is an extended, depressive suite about wizened contentment and well, existential dread. Authenticity is purposefully one-note: spare, frosty electronic soul about how much damned work it is to be in a relationship. We met up with Phonte last week in Raleigh, North Carolina, to discuss the record as the Foreign Exchange prepared for their two CMJ shows this Saturday: A free one at the Union Square Best Buy at 2:30 p.m. and then a 7 p.m. performance at BB King’s.

Authenticity isn’t a sea change or anything, but it’s close. There’s barely any rapping and Nicolay’s production is darker and pretty minimal. Compared to Connected and Leave It All Behind, it deviates from the Foreign Exchange “brand” pretty significantly.

Yeah but we’re not really beholden to any kind of record company other than ourselves and I just don’t think we’re a lifestyle-based group like that, you know? That’s just how it is. And people seem to be taking to the record and feel like it speaks to them. People don’t look at us the way they look at Usher or R. Kelly or any of the really big r&b stars and be like, “I want to be like these guys.” I think they hear our stuff and think, “I am like these guys.”

Instead of providing an answer to radio r&b or even a corrective, you’re going for something more down to earth and adult.

Man, popular r&b just really doesn’t give you that much room to grow up. You just don’t have that luxury. Like, “We in the club, we poppin’ bottles, we fuckin’ models” and you’ll be doing that shit all your life. Anything about getting married, having kids, slowing down? That just does not translate. I don’t know what it is but when you’re playing on that level, it just really doesn’t give you much room for any kind of maturity.

Authenticity is very much a mature r&b record. It isn’t hopeless or anything but it’s got a very unsentimental, maybe even specifically male perspective.

Authenticity came out to be a masculine record. A lot of r&b records, in terms of men performing r&b, are basically pandering to women and telling women what record companies think they want to hear. By and large, there’s no r&b music that really speaks to a man like a man. You know, I can dig some of Trey Songz’s stuff or whatever but I can’t be ridin’ four deep in the car, me and my homeboys listening to “Neighbors Know My Name.” It’s just like dude–no. Like, that would never fuckin’ happen.

Right. R&B is pretty much an entire genre that’s been reconfigured for males to tolerate at best.

There’s kind of a dearth of r&b that speaks to men in men’s terms: the way we really express ourselves, the way we feel. And so, with this record, once it was done and I kinda looked back on it, I was like “Man, this is some pretty raw shit.” I do wonder how the female fan base will take to it because it’s just not very hopeful in a lot of ways. But that is how a lot of men feel.

Is that how you feel? On “The Last Fall”, there’s that line, “Love is at worst an excuse/At best it’s a truce.”

You know, the record is not the autobiography of Phonte Coleman. Everything is not directly from my life…but a lot of it is. And maybe I have grown a lot colder and somehow, more jaded? Just like, over time, getting to that point and feeling like, “Love is at worst an excuse/At best it’s a truce.” You keep going through the same things over and over again with somebody and right when you think you figured it out, something happens and it’s like “Man, fuck this shit dog!” Like “Damn, I thought I figured it out!” and it just goes haywire and it just makes you feel like, “Fuck it.”

The title track is pretty harsh too. You’re talking to a woman in a relationship who wants emotional honesty but actually doesn’t and you flat-out call her on it.

That was just kind of my take on “You won’t love me for who I am.” Like look, you’re in a relationship with somebody and you say you want your mate to tell you the raw, honest truth but you don’t actually wanna hear that shit. But it can work on a lot of different levels. Someone says “We’re just too dependent on foreign oil” and you say, “Alright motherfucker. Walk to work everyday!”

And they don’t want to hear that…

Yeah, yeah. “We’re too dependent on energy” and you say, “Okay, well stop running your AC during the day.” and they’re not going to do that shit. It’s like, “Okay motherfucker, well [quoting the hook to “Authenticity”] you just want what you want.”

Authenticity is formally very clean. Given the rough lyrical content, was it particularly important for everything on the album to come together like that?

I just never want to make records where people are like “Okay, this part is the good part.” You know, sampling in hip-hop is based all around “the good part” of the record. It’s like, “Yeah I know you were playing this crazy jazz solo and it was incredible and y’all are playing all these minor thirteenth chords and all these fuckin’ changes, but all we give a fuck about is this little drum break right here.” Hip-hop is really just about getting to the core of things and cutting all the bullshit. So approaching songwriting on Authenticity, I was like, “Shit, I want my songs to be one big, good part!”

There really aren’t any seams showing on the record.

When I talk about sequencing records and putting projects together, I just always look at it as “show up late and leave early.” That’s just from all my English classes and stuff, like, in medias res, you know, starting in the middle. You never start, “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far far away.” Not that I’m dissing Star Wars or anything…

Right, of course not, but that more drawn-out approach is something of a gamble.

Yes, it is a gamble. I just don’t think you always have to start with the fanfare and the fuckin’ five minute flute solo and brass–just put me in the middle of it! So pretty much, with Authenticity, the goal was to get to the heart of everything and really just keep it moving and snappy. That’s what I’m most proud of about the record. Me and Nic were able to make our point in less than forty minutes. The album is only thirty eight minutes long. We kept it really lean and mean.

Is that “lean and men” approach tough to do, especially when you’ve got another member to consider?

Me and Nic help each other out. I am more “cut it, cut it, cut it” and he likes to extend things or add more and so, we balance each other out. Once more, that “cut, cut, cut” approach just comes from working on hip-hop records so much. Being a rapper taught me discipline more than anything else. It teaches you the difference between a slant rhyme and a pure rhyme. “Time and dime” that’s a pure rhyme but “Time and line” is a slant rhyme. Little things like that I carried over when I worked with r&b singers. Writing songs with them, they would just write these verses that would just be long and flowery and shit and I’m just like “Dude, cut the shit. What the fuck are you trying to say?” It really just made me a stickler for like, little details and getting them right. Like, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a rabbit by the…knee.” I just hear that and I’m like “What the fuck are you doing? It’s toe motherfucker!”

Can’t being a stickler like that limit your songwriting though?

There ain’t but so many topics you can talk about in the world. I mean, you can write about anything, that’s not to limit anybody, but in terms of writing love songs or pop songs or whatever, I mean, there’s only a certain amount of tried and true topics. The thing that changes about the topic is just you as a person. If you were to write about the sky when you were six years old, you would sound different writing about the sky than when you’re twenty-six years old. So really, while the topic and the subject matter stay the same, the perspective changes.

Most r&b though, does just stop and circle that twenty-six year old view.

Yeah, I mean, Authenticity is not a romantic record in the classic sense. Leave It All Behind was very much a romantic record but this one just isn’t and I almost felt like I should apologize for it. I didn’t realize the record was lyrically as dark as it was until after it was over and I had to type out the lyrics for the credits and I was like “Goddamn, motherfuckers gonna think I’m suicidal and shit.” Sometimes, you know, you just can’t help what comes out of you.