What has happened to freestyle since Trinere and Debbie Deb left us in 1995? Not a lot.
Many have tried this style, failing in being able to make the sound of busy beats at the intersection of heavy sex and love desires their own. It’s easy to put on this style as a façade but very hard to actually be taken seriously for owning the style. The closest that came to this was Annie’s Endless Vacation from last year, which took on a similar style made popular Ace Of Base and Real McCoy.
But ABRA? She has made freestyle her home.
The musician is an Atlanta-by-way-of-Britain pop act who wholly embraces these bygone sounds and seemingly over dramatic lyrics on her latest EP, Princess. For example: the song “Crybaby,” a key jangling beat driven dance jam about being called too sensitive and too childish. You know when someone tells you to grow up but you are acting grown up, that sort of agist or sexist or homophobic or white entitlement someone throws at you? That’s where ABRA is coming from here, how when we don’t understand each other it only heightens the situation. She does this lyrically but mirrors the drama through 1990s freestyle tropes: arpeggiating, building synths, open dance floor wonderland sections that she coos over, and—Of course.—a spoken word bridge.
The song is both classic yet now, as you reach the end of the song and hear nu-R&B and electronic production leaking in to remind you that this is twenty years since freestyle was in. It’s that fusion of the now and then that makes ABRA work. “Vegas” has a similar feel and theme—taking a gamble on her, if you can afford it—all done through bass heavy dance, exaggerated by ABRA’s layering her voice over groups of her own vocals. “Big Boi” feels the most now, a rap-sung song dedicated to a man who think he’s big enough for her but isn’t. It stands as the releases transitional point from past to present and back.
To confront her dance nature, she wisely closes Princess with more sensual jams. “Thinking Of U” is another classic about how your lover gets jealous of you for being sexy but, chill, because she has you in mind. “Pull Up” is the most laid back and quiet, consisting of chimes underlining a confrontation between ABRA and her lover, who has taken on another lover. These songs are successful because they channel another nineties goddess—Aaliyah—which too many artists have been “inspired” by but fail to marry Aaliyah’s strength, vulnerability, and sexiness to their own music. ABRA? She makes no effort at trying: she just does it.
The closest thing we’ve had to Princess before Princess was Kelela’s Hallucinogen, which was great but nowhere near this. Kelela does a good job of balancing now with then but stumbles in that she’s too cool. It’s not bad to be cool, no, but where as Kelela feels like a collaborator to artists like Kingdom and Jam City. ABRA? She feels singular and self-sustained, carrying a torch from the past by acting like freestyle music never went away.
Is she wrong? Not really: that sound has always been here, always embraced, and always loved. She’s just the only person who figured out what to do about it.