Nowadays, album releases are rarely as riveting an experience as they once were. Racing down to the shop on a Friday with the excitement of absorbing a new record is an experience facing extinction. Free Nationals’ self-titled funk-filled debut sounds as if it has been plucked from this bygone era. Since its 2017 announcement, scorching singles have been drip-fed and a plethora of feature artists accrued to similarly cultivate an age-old anticipation. For fans of the funk, this late bolter for 2019 top ten lists doesn’t disappoint.
Forming in the late 2000s, the Free Nationals developed their individual chops either playing in church or through self-taught means. José Rios (guitar) and Ron “T.Nava” Avant’s (keys) serendipitous gig with Anderson .Paak around this time resulted in the band’s birth under their frontman/drummer’s eclectic energy. Kelsey Gonzalez (bass) joined as word of the collective spread through LA. With .Paak’s solo career sprouting, Callum Connor (drums) stepped in as they themselves graduated from wedding band to warming up for Beyoncé and Coachella sets. Most notable as .Paak’s effervescent live band, curiosity for their own creations has resulted in a record that’s both respectful of the past whilst being heavily influenced by contemporary RnB and lo-fi. It’s an effort that proves them a powerhouse in their own right and allows them to not so much step out of .Paak’s shadow, but rather join him in the limelight.
Oddly titled for an album opener, the curtain raises to a crowd’s commotion on “Obituaries”. Shafiq Husayn, instrumental in denoting the band their name, offers a proverb of unity and harmony, placing responsibility on the patriarchy; “If thy sister’s in trouble, forsake her not, so shall the fortunes of thy father, it should be, to the support of this whole race”. Smooth keys here foreshadow the lo-fi funk of “Beauty & Essex”. Amid dreamy chorus-heavy chords and downtempo drums, Daniel Caesar and Ruban Nielson (Unknown Mortal Orchestra) play vocal good cop, bad cop. The first of many instances of the Nats’ knack for equilibrium, Ceasar’s seductive croon contrasts with Nielson’s rasp, giving depth to their tale of endearment.
“On Sight” is a standout third single taken from the record, made memorable by its Steve Lacy-esque wah-pedal hook. It’s another track elevated by standout, balanced vocal performances where JID, MIKNNA and Kadhja Bonet’s upper register all add their own flavour to the bass slaps and detuned synths that complete the serene arrangement. The song’s strutty, syncopated rhythm is reciprocated on “Shibuya”, where Syd of The Internet stars with a chorus that wonderfully transcends these sharper rhythms for a sparse levity that feels like you’re floating on a cloud.
On “Apartment”, cult indie-pop phenomenon Benny Sings’ Gus Dapperton style, when placed among a chilled-funk aesthetic, sounds surprisingly and satisfyingly faithful to any 70s composition. With a lilting verse, he details the existential crises surrounding his resettlement amid guitars that glisten with the redemptive strength of a sunny Sunday morning.
Former founding member Anderson .Paak appears on the danceable electro-funk number “Gidget”. Synths pulse beside rapid rhythms as clean guitar strums syncopate a groove as good as anything off Malibu (2016). There’s Herbie Hancock levels of nostalgia through Avant’s vocoder before “Rene” ramps up the electro energy. Sawtooth synths and bubbly bass mashed with RnB vocals seem to reference Brandon Coleman from the Brainfeeder label as much as it does any older origin.
“Time” is another sublime stab at smooth neo-soul/funk that harnesses every instrument in the shed. Acoustic strums, flutes, gooey synths and slide guitar all play crucial roles in creating a melange of melodies and timbres. This vibrant tapestry is underpinned by Kali Uchis’ strident vocals alongside the late Mac Miller, appearing on his first official posthumous recording at the time of release. The chorus is expertly crafted with a memorable calling card that stings with painful honesty; “I gotta take some time to grow, but whether you were miserable, I think I got too comfortable”. RnB heavyweight T.I. makes the short-fire palette-cleanser “Cut Me A Break” his own. The sub-two-minute jab is indebted to his idiosyncratic rap as it is Rios’ shredding beyond an otherwise rudimental structure.
The Nats’ venture into another facet of funk with the chilled RnB soundscape of “Eternal Light”. Chronixx adds a Jamaican flavour to the prose that sits perfectly among wandering basslines and luscious keys that mix melodies for a meditative listen. This understated effort contrasts massively with the overt theatrical intro of “Oslo”. It’s an anthemic funk banger, again ameliorated by Avant’s vocoder and dense synth chords which harken back to the 80s. A delirious mono synth solo is a cherry atop this exemplification of how finely honed these musicians are.
“Lester Diamond” is an upbeat instrumental that feels disjointed from the rest of the album. Whilst built upon a driving funk groove, everything feels a little too clean and contrived. There’s a subtle stylised point of difference from the rest of the record here that’s emphasised when transitioning to a downtempo section that feels like a daytime TV jingle. Thankfully “The Rivington” closes things in a manner the album deserves. This deep lo-fi cut sees the band unshackled, bearing detuned luscious synths that pair perfectly with a bassline so fat Thundercat would be jealous. The hypnotic hook conjured by the guitar and lead synth combo is mesmerising, as are Conway’s wrenching verses.
Free Nationals have described themselves as being indigenous to the funk. Their debut record asserts this through faithful reimaginings that are injected with contemporary twists, many of which are further appreciated with relistens. The band utilise feature artists as effectively as their own instruments, making each song distinctive whilst glued by The Nats’ pervading presence. Long since the days of Toto or The Wrecking Crew, these L.A. natives have hereby offered up a reaffirmation that session musicians can make for sublime songwriters.
Free Nationals is released Friday 13th December via OBE/Empire.