Free Nationals – ‘Free Nationals’ review: Anderson .Paak’s dexterous live band strike out alone

The crooner and rapper's backing band have finally rolled out their own album – though their leader's shadow looms large

Anyone who’s followed Anderson .Paak’s rise over the past four years will already be well acquainted with his dexterous live band the Free Nationals. Like their charismatic frontman, the four core band members – Kelsey Gonzalez (bass), Ron “T. Nava” Avant (keys), Callum Connor (drums) and José Rios (guitar) – grafted for nearly a decade (even wedding gigs weren’t beyond them) before the right opportunity finally presented itself.

.Paak’s breakthrough solo album ‘Malibu’ in 2016 was just that opportunity, catapulting its creator to fame and handing the Free Nationals the chance to combine forces and join their cohort ascent onto bigger and better stages across the globe.

.Paak has released two more solo albums over the past year (this year’s successful ‘Ventura’ and ‘Malibu’ follow-up ‘Oxnard’). That heavy workload had an adverse knock-on effect on the Free Nationals’ own designs on writing and recording; this Free Nationals album has been delayed more than once.

You wouldn’t know that from the persistently upbeat outlook that runs through the record, though. Any frustration was evidently left at the recording studio door. From the retro glitter ball groove of instrumental ‘Lester Diamond’ to the irresistible G-funk slap of the J.I.D.-featuring ‘On Sight’, the band’s smooth and soulful funk-first-ask-questions-later style is a bright, engaging and comfortably familiar proposition.

Proudly wearing their influences on their sleeve – the band are long-term scholars of Stevie Wonder, Parliament-Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock and many more – that sense of familiarity thankfully doesn’t descend into unbridled pastiche over ‘Free Nationals” 41-minute run time. Instead it adheres to the band’s long-touted party line that they wish to pay homage to the music greats of the past, albeit with a modern-day spin.

The band operate a revolving-door policy in terms of the guest vocalists on ‘Free Nationals’. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson and a hot-under-the-collar Daniel Caesar coo about “aphrodisiac potion” on ‘Beauty & Essex’ and The Internet’s Syd offers smoky swagger on ‘Shibuya’ and dancehall sensation Chronixx is suitably illuminating ‘Eternal Light’. And, of course, .Paak can’t help but crash his mates’ party as he accompanies a vocoder-using T. Nava on ‘Gidget’. “Don’t tell me you don’t love me now,” he offers, practically winking at his fans.

.Paak’s cameo and the guest list policy give ‘Free Nationals’ the feel of a compilation record, rather than a band making their first definitive statement. Allowing these numerous vocalists to imprint their own personalities on the overwhelming majority of the album’s 13 tracks puts the Free Nationals back in their safe comfort zone, laying down the instrumental at the back of the stage while the eyes of the audience are glued to whoever’s on the mic.

The Free Nationals’ supreme musicianship is unquestionable, but they more often than not seem to require an outside presence leading from the front to really bring it all home.


Free Nationals album

Release date: December 13
Record label:
OBE, LLC / Empire

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