Review Summary: “like living in a post modern nightmare” - DownerJust Be Free
is inescapably a divisive album. There’s no two ways around it. There’s very little by way of melody, grandiose artistic concept, lyrical profundity, or anything else that’s been the bread and butter of the Western music tradition for the past few eons. It literally consists of “the queen deeeee-va” Big Freedia telling you, the listener, to shake your ass for just over thirty minutes. There’s really not much to it: the album is essentially the Cha-Cha Slide on steroids and a few too many cups of coffee, if instead of telling you to move your whole body slickly to the music it exhorted you to move your rump in every imaginable way.
It’s funny, too, because given the circumstances birthing the album, it could have been a totally different beast. You’ve got all the components of a savvily weighty piece of art - trans woman of color, veteran of the vibrant New Orleans drag scene, who’s been telling people to “work [their] rump-a-dump” for years, over a decade before the whole Miley “twerk” fiasco. It’s easy to imagine her spinning a tale of nostalgia, woe, heartbreak, and what have you about her soul’s inevitably tumultuous journey through the rough streets of the Big Easy and the sheer, jaw-dropping wonder of the bounce world’s oasis and how all that has become such an inextricable part of her whole being.
The setting is obviously there, and Freedia chooses to thumb her nose at it. At times, it’s almost as though she’s intentionally smirking at the people who don’t view her music as, well, music. Like that part in “Where My Queens At” where the only elements are a two-bar hip-hop drum loop and Freedia yelling something incomprehensible that sounds something like “Wi-ki-wi-ki-wi-ki-wi-wi-wi-ki-wi-ki…” ad infinitum. Or, for that matter, that very same drum loop, essentially copied exactly as the backbone of three songs in a row. You’ve even got the quintessential “Damn, son, where’d you find this"!"!"!"” trap beat to close the album on “Mo Azz, " taking everything the internet makes fun of with respect to modern hip-hop and turning it up to 11 (amplified, of course, by Freedia commanding the assumed crowd to twerk, “hands on the wall” and everything).
Honestly, all these arguably non-musical elements form the core of what makes this album so exciting. Sure, Just Be Free
isn’t music in the traditional sense - that is, music as a strictly upper-class phenomenon, intensely cerebral and thought-provoking. It’s not even music in the pop sentiment, either - there’s no catchy hooks to whistle along to, no inoffensive, clean-cut boy group doo-wopping and causing only mild discomfort among more conservative parents. Rather, this is a visceral outpouring of repressed spirit and sexual fire. There’s no reason Big Freedia would have the traction she currently has if there weren’t a significant chunk of the population who identifies with her message and is willing to support it, whether with their money, their time, or their generous posterior.
This is, after all, about the queen diva and her court. It’s a celebration of self, an affirmation of whatever status Big Freedia is willing to flaunt, and a celebration of the party spirit she evokes. Just Be Free
is obviously a low-tech affair - cut-outs and poorly-looped drums are relatively obvious throughout - and Freedia is perfectly fine with all that, just as long as she can “make ya bounce.” Part of the allure, in fact, is how decidedly brutish the songs are, their primary purpose one of function rather than form. It’s almost a non-musical collection of music, in that the various piano and synth chords aren’t prominent, the drums are exhaustively repetitive and simplistic, and the vocals lie well beyond what can pass as “rap” or “spoken-word.”
And it’s entirely possible that the lack of traditional musicality is the point. Just Be Free
is indeed a forward-thinking work in that Big Freedia creates a new, radical reality, separate from the muck of the current bigoted mess she and her crew live in, which is not only a relief from the daily crushing professionalism and self-presentation necessary to survive but a retaliation against it. It’s an exciting place to be, after all, full of love and lust and self. More importantly, it’s a place which simply isn’t possible with the standard tools musicians are given, requiring something completely out of the ordinary.
Hence, we’re left with Just Be Free.
It might indeed be a “post-modern nightmare” (taking a Downer quote out of context), completely devoid of musical worth or artistic integrity. However, given the fantastically alive result, that kind of anti-musical attitude is exactly what it needed. It won’t do much to convert the snooty into ass-shaking maniacs, sure, but that’s too bad for them - their loss. Just Be Free
is a wonderfully functional album, displaying Queen Freedia at her very best. Removing a Janelle Monae line only slightly from its intended use, the booty don’t lie.