We always knew Phonte could sang. His career in North Carolina’s Little Brother was peppered with turns as a vocalist, most memorably on The Minstrel Show’s “Cheatin’”, an uproarious send up of mainstream R&B’s penchant for cartoonish melodrama. Still, though, when Tay went full on crooner for Leave It All Behind, his and Dutch producer Nicolay’s second album as the Foreign Exchange, it was a bit of a curveball. Even so, Tay and Nic made it a smooth transition with an album full of Nicolay’s stellar production and Phonte’s smoothly sung loverman platitudes. This is a group that never hesitates to challenge its fanbase with each work, and Authenticity is no exception. Where Leave It All Behind was an ode to being in love, Authenticity trafficks in stories of exhaustion, resignation, and quiet, mannered desperation that find the group exploring new musical territories.
Authenticity is not your average post-millennial R&B record. No one’s having sex in the kitchen. Authenticity instead seems to take inspiration from sophisticated 80s music by artists whose sounds were every bit as eccentric as they were accomplished. The opening first verse of “The Last Fall” recalls the brazenly synth-laced soundscapes sculpted by Giorgio Moroder and Vangelis until the chorus explodes into saccharine layered vocals and a piano line containing a faint whiff of the kind of wistful pop balladry championed by artists like Joe Jackson. Nic drops a gonzo descending synth figure on “Don’t Wait” while Phonte and Darien Brockington’s jazzy voicings gleefully dart around the melody. Much of Authenticity trades the sleek ambient soul of Leave It All Behind for a more economic, more synthetic and futuristic sound.
For all the programmed drums and plaintive synth washes that abound on Authenticity, though, there’s a fair amount of organic instrumentation pushing back. The brief “Everything Must Go” is built almost exclusively around piano, acoustic guitar, and violin. “Fight for Love” is wall to wall pianos. The gorgeous “Laughing At Your Plans” flirts lightly with country, both in its honky tonk shuffle of a drum beat and the swatches of pedal steel that gently accompany Phonte’s and Chantae Cann’s vocals. Authenticity is an album of contradictions, evidenced in both the tug and pull between glacial electronic sounds and more organic ones, and in the warring attitudes toward love that vie for dominance in the lyrics.
On the surface, this album is a painfully honest jaunt through the nuances and complexities of relationships, and more specifically when and why people shouldn’t be in them. “Love is at worst an excuse/ At best it’s a truce/ So what is the use?” Phonte muses in the chorus of “The Last Fall”, the album’s dark, dejected opener. “Fight for Love” is a wounded musing on the futility of fighting for someone’s affection. The title-track finds the narrator on the defensive in a relationship that’s slowly falling apart. “She’s all that I could dream, but she tears me apart,” Phonte sings. Authenticity offers an often bleak, always uncompromising look at the seedy underbelly of love, at the reasons it slips away from us and the reasons we stay when there’s nothing left to hold on to.
When the mood clears during the album’s midsection, though, things get confusing. “Maybe She’ll Dream of Me” finds Tay bowled over by the joy of a new and unlikely romance. “Don’t Wait” refutes the futility of “Fight for Love”, advising that “if someone loves you back, don’t get in the way.” “Make Me a Fool” is more guarded in its excitement. (“I’m not asking you to be an angel. Just don’t make me a fool.”) The focus of these songs would seem to be diametrically opposed to that of the rest of the record, until the centerpiece drops into place, and it all suddenly makes sense.
“Laughing At Your Plans” neatly ties together the ups and downs detailed throughout Authenticity’s 39 minutes in a devastatingly concise two sentences: “God is laughing at your plans,” Phonte and Chantae sing. “What will be will be.” One day we might be in love with “the one,” that perfect person who was sent from above to fit us like a jigsaw puzzle. Another day we might lose that person forever and swear off ever putting ourselves out there again for fear of getting hurt. Later on we might inexplicably find ourselves going out on a limb once more against our better judgement. “Laughing At Your Plans” says it doesn’t matter what we tell ourselves is going to happen. It doesn’t matter what scenarios we run through in our mind. Unexpected events will transpire. All we can do is roll with the punches. We love. We fight. We lose. We hurt. We try again.