The Free Nationals Shine & Transcend with Self-Titled Debut Album
Evan Dale // Dec 14, 2019
It’s been a long road for the Free Nationals to find their way to the release of their self-titled debut album. Though it’s been swift since they released their debut single, collaborative effort with Daniel Caesar, Beauty & Essex late last year, they’ve been at it as Anderson .Paak’s backing band for many more years than that. But, through .Paak’s own growth and all the things that come with it including countless tours and performances on platforms like NPR’s Tiny Desk, the Free Nationals themselves – which rotate .Paak in at drums in performance and occasionally the studio – have gained a separate yet prestigious reputation.
In 2019, they kept an every-other-month kind of pace for leading singles. Time brought Mac Miller’s first posthumous verse into mix with a Kali Uchis hook for a bittersweet ballad. On Sight pulled JID, Kadhja Bonet, and MIKNNA out of their respective comfort zones and into the funk sphere. Eternal Light exhibited the Free Nationals’ transcendent collaborative ability at its furthest push with a reggae spot from Chronixx. And Shibuya allowed Syd the sultry kind of soul performance she always brings in tow.
As the album has come to fruition, it expectedly includes all five introductory singles carefully dotted throughout its playbill. And all new tracks but one, Lester Diamond, follow suit, highlighting in-house vocals and features of some of music’s most sought-after names. But the sole inclusion of Lester Diamond alone leaves us wanting more like it. The Free Nationals to modern music are not what The Funk Brothers were to the Motown era. They have the reach, the foundation, and the connections to do what the Funk Brothers – with all the skills that came with their ability – didn’t have. And with their first vocally disjointed release suddenly in the open, it’s difficult to listen onward knowing what they’re capable of doing in an era less focused on vocals and penmanship than any before it in modern times. It would be nice to hear more instrumental bouts from such a transcendent and capable band, but maybe such a request is the jump of a gun so early on in the band’s limelight framing.
Digression in place, the twelve tracks making up the majority of the Free Nationals’ debut album and subsequently their entire canon are solid. Though there’s little doubt they knowingly released their strongest collaborative efforts en route to the album’s release and that in turn, the six songs unincluded in the train of singles or the sole instrumental track are not as strong as their other half, there is still not a moment to overlook.
An outrageous collaborative collective makes up the new half of the Free Nationals playbill. The all-encompassing artistry of Shafiq Husayn opens the entire project with a firm and calming bout of introductory poeticism, leading towards a timeless funk exhibition true to the rest of the project’s underlying nature. The retro aesthetic of Benny Sings plays directly into the eclectic era-spanning colorway that the Free Nationals have always stood for. Anderson .Paak himself pulls his soulful rasp into frame and further explores the seamless collaboration that he and his band share on Gidget. T.I. continues an unexpected year of collaborative efforts with an expectedly smooth yet raw verse on Cut Me a Break. And Conway, Westside Gunn, and Joyce Wrice make The Rivington the exact kind of funk-hip-hop-soul transcendent anthem that should close out a project hellbent on exploring the gray areas between all three established scenes.
Through and through, Free Nationals plays out well beyond – and behind – the band’s years. It could have come out anytime in the last five or six decades and no one would have questioned the placement of any of its musical nuances save some of the hip-hop-centric verses. It is a bold exhibition of timeless funk and its role across every other genre for which its featuring artists represent. And even in an era firmly motivated by the workings of funk and its influence on soul, hip-hop, R&B, and electronica in particular, it stands out as a comprehensive live-band feature album, the likes of which usually only come from renowned producers, like KAYTRANADA who himself released his sophomore album on the same day as the Free Nationals released their debut.
It is a remarkable introduction for a band who have proven themselves innovative veterans much more than they are newcomers to the scene. And though there is undoubtedly room for growth and refinement in their sound, to nitpick it would be to denounce the experimentalism and risks taken that drove it into form in the first place.
To that, we’ll leave it at this: congratulations to the Free Nationals – the world can’t wait to see what you do next and who you do it with.