Only two months after Nicolay issued his collaborative City Lights, Vol. 3: Soweto, the producer and instrumentalist, along with singing, songwriting, and arranging partner Phonte, returned with the most varied Foreign Exchange album. It’s also the one that most emphasizes the duo’s extended family of collaborators. The cover of this, their fifth proper full-length, displays Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden — two of their co-lead and background vocalists — as well as Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson. The FEnucleus and Zo! go way back and take it to another level here, with Zo! — similar to Nicolay, a studio wiz who typically works in isolation — a co-songwriter and co-producer of every song. Perhaps proximity and a history as performing partners partly explain why so much of this sounds like a party, as free and easy as the group’s shows. FE previously went house with “So What If It Is,” a deep and cleansing track, but when they return to the form here, it’s with the humorous and rhythmically tougher early-’90s throwback “Asking for a Friend,” where Phonte affects a distinguished Englishman accent akin to that of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s Geoffrey Butler. On first listen, the song sounds merely like an amusing novelty until the stellar Waden-led chorus enters and takes it somewhere else. (No R&B group before them has maintained such a strong balance between female and male voices.) A different stunt is pulled with “Work It to the Top,” bumping boogie that touches on 1979-1981 Slave — just a little bit — down to Phonte‘s spirited Steve Arrington mannerisms. Beyond those two songs and the pair of delighted Brazilian fusion-styled title tracks that begin and end the album, what remains largely refines the sweet and blissful grooves of Love in Flying Colors. That’s not a bad thing, not when the writing is as sharp, with rich harmonies laced through rhythms that bound and wind with unforced finesse and warmth. Even with a disarming ballad on each side, Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey is one of the funnest R&B albums in some time.
One sign of a great album is when its last track is as stimulating as its first track. “Body Rock” ends Lorenzo Ferguson‘s second album for the Foreign Exchange label with eight minutes of heavenly, faultlessly crafted quiet storm. Thirty-eight minutes earlier, at the beginning, there’s the deeply contrasting “The Train,” a blissful machine-soul jam where Ferguson displays mastery of the synthetic and the organic. Those highlights feature two of Sy Smith‘s sweetest and best vocal performances, and they surround a high quantity of strong songs. Make that stronger songs: while ManMade has much in common with 2010’s fine SunStorm, this particular set of relaxed and mature R&B is a little more complex and nuanced, yet the instant appeal remains. As with Ferguson‘s previous album, the moods here are predominantly romantic and relentlessly positive, even when it briefly confronts the pressures expressed by Phonte in “Out in the World.” ManMade features some of the same collaborators, including not just Smith and frequent background and foreground presence Phonte, but also Carlitta Durand and Eric Roberson, the latter of whom leads the sophisticated twilight funk of “We Are on the Move.” Whether the leads are supplied by labelmate Jeanne Jolly, the higher profile Anthony David, up-and-comers Gwen Bunn and 1-O.A.K., or underexposed veterans like Choklate and Carmen Rodgers, the album maintains an easy elegance and never derails. For all the help he receives, this is Ferguson‘s show. On each track, he’s credited with either “all instruments” or “all other instruments,” which means that he played everything but some flute, horns, and percussion. ManMade is a complete work — his best creation yet.