The Free Nationals have quietly performed as Anderson .Paak’s version of The Internet; a backing band that excels in producing earthy tonalities reminiscent of George Clinton’s earliest body of work. Their breezy aesthetic sounds nice when up against the old-school raspiness of .Paak’s vocal renditions. The combination presents a look and an intellectual swagger clearly influenced by Marvin Gaye’s heyday.
That era of 60s/70s funk/jazz is the inspiration behind the Free Nationals’ collaborative debut album. The quartet-consisting of Kelsey Gonzalez (bass), Ron “Tnava” Avant (keyboard/vocoder), Callum Connor (drums) and Jose Rios (guitar)-invites a slew of R&B/rap guests to accommodate for their easygoing sound.
Essentially, the self-titled record plays out like a more intriguing DJ Khaled project, one that exceeds in playing to each artist’s strengths. Daniel Caesar (who seemingly lost his way earlier this year) re-captures that silky smooth sensuality from his beloved Freudian album on “Beauty & Essex,” though I do think the song could’ve benefited from a slight trim. Ruban Nielson’s verse is hedged nicely between Caesar’s sexy chorus, but for someone who’s already in hot water with the public, Caesar’s pre-chorus probably could’ve been left out.
Thankfully, lines such as those are bookended by a heavy female presence. Speaking of The Internet, Syd makes an entry into the swift-moving “Shibuya,” the most Gaye-inspired cut on here. Her quest for the ordinary is seized through a stark insistence on keeping her lover in sight for the weekend-“Hope you stay until Saturday/’Cause you ain’t gotta work tomorrow anyway do You babe?”
Kali Uchis continues her hot streak with “Time,” one of the few times where the lyrics are just as poignant as the funky bass-lines and atmospheric electric keys. Her and the late Mac Miller carry standout performances revolving around the larger-than-life ideas of time, love, and how the two coincide. The narrative surrounding the track is just as intriguing and mysterious as the song’s wailing synth. Not to mention fans are left with one final great Mac verse detailing how he felt during the tumultuous period after his breakup with Ariana Grande.
Sometimes, the Free Nationals’ nonchalant nature can present itself as mere background music for a Christmas party. .Paak makes one of his few appearances on “Gidget,” a song that virtually means nothing within the context of this album; and modern music for that matter. T’Nava’s vocoder does inject some life in between these empty sentiments, but .Paak does little to leverage a song about saving some girl from whatever the hell he’s talking about.
Despite the cliched and oftentimes trite lyricism, songs such as “Rene” and “Oslo” paint our women in a positive light. Drummer Callum Connor exudes some pristine layered vocals over an uptempo drum pattern. He approaches a tumultuous relationship with optimism, a tone present throughout most of this project. Moments such as these are groovy, memorable, and phenomenally orchestrated.
The Nationals’ keen ear for bombastic percussion and funky guitar performances are the main force behind this album. Every contributing artist does their job in some way shape or form. No one exceeds expectations however. At least, not until the finale “The Rivington.” Griselda’s own Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn provide their grimy Buffalo aesthetic to contrast these creamy sonics. The combination comes off better than expected as each of the artists step out of their comfort zone. I honestly wish this type of thing occurred more often on the album.
Nonetheless, .Paak’s backing band crafts a project filled with songs that can appeal to a wide range of audiences, whether they be Marvin Gaye and George Clinton fans, 90s boom-bap traditionalists, or 90s R&B apologists. There’s something for everyone here despite a clear tendency to play it safe.