London’s legendary techno temple, Ministry of Sound – cathedral to the beat since 1991 – famously posts a neon warning sign outside its main entrance alerting guests that they are entering a sound pressure zone that can reach aural altitudes of 110dB or greater. The Westminster Abbey of woofers does at least provide designated chill-out rooms and quiet zones if needed. Aluna Francis, however, winkingly proffers no such amnesty from the compression continuum she institutes on her arresting art heist of a new album entitled Renaissance, making you dance by way of Diplo’s Mad Decent label.
The beldame of BPM has been doing audio adrenaline as a public art form since at least as early as 2009, when she met future bandmate George Reid. He was tapped to remix a single entitled “Sweetheart” by her then-project My Toys Like Me, an earlier electro-duo wherein she first went as Frances Noon alongside Lazlo Legezer. This doublet eventually gave way to the official partnership with Reid and the formation of the Afropunk/House twinship known as AlunaGeorge. The 2012 release of “You Know You Like It” as a digital single paired this piqued pair with DJ Snake and saw AlunaGeorge spike the soundtrack for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Shortly thereafter came their first full-length studio transcription called Body Music, a collaboration with Disclosure on gangbusters single “White Noise,” a deal with Interscope, a second longform offering entitled I Remember, and opening slots on tours with the likes of Sia and Coldplay.
While all of this is impressive and absorbing, none of it is anything more than the prologue to The Canterbury Tales – fascinating and literary in its own right, but just the famous preamble to the bruising begonia version of solo Aluna Francis that was to come. I will not be couching Francis here in reference or deference to any artist that she has worked with before for so many reasons, not least that this whole record is her staking her flag as a muliebrous Black woman in the hothouse environment of the underground dance world.
With so much of recent EDM and electro-inspired music in other genres reducing itself to the equivalent of cocktail fodder and jump shots, Renaissance is a tempest in a teakettle. Cultural splinter factions, unspoken expectations, the tourniquets of race and gender, the gaudy pelt and dash of genre – these are but nothing and everything when it comes to making a word altar worthy of Aluna Francis out on her own. Born in London to an Jamaican father and an Indian mother, she is now based in L.A. and has managed to gloriously drink in the sidewalk concrete of both fabled cities, conjuring and hybridizing them to breathtaking effect in this first collection of authentic solo songs. Her background in reflexology (zone therapy) is self-evident in her sounds. She knows exactly where to push the tempo, where the song’s (and listener’s) sensitive spots are, and what needs lyrical pressure when.
Renaissance represents soul-excavation, regeneration, and birth on much more than the musical plane. Having carried her “hidden spirit animal” daughter, Amaya, throughout a fair portion of this record’s writing process, and keeping unborn Amaya a “really optimistic secret” during that time lends tendentious insight into both the fomentation of the feminine voice in this album as well as its crucial purpose. Francis has said of her mixed daughter that she wished to gift her an album that showcased the embroidered beauties of being amalgamated. Talking of color’s “okayness” this late in human history is shockingly common, to say nothing of backward and beige. Aluna Francis, to her immense credit, wants to sing instead of its inherent incorruptibility and probity. Her no-nostalgia-all-velocity open letter to the global dance community with regard to the invisible transit of property that has taken place between Black and Brown LGBTQI people and the maw of western commercialism is a must-read even for people who care nothing whatsoever for music in any form. Her epistle actually is what PLUR thought it was.
Like the Mad Hatter Last Supper scene that adorns its cover, Renaissance is the sonic swindle sheet of experiential flotsam that came together in clashing musico-cultural elements to form the naturally dyadic quality native to Aluna Francis as a woman, as a minority on multiple levels, and as an artist–possibly in that order. As a result, a machine-gun spray of earlier oracles greets any Renaissance listener, and not one of them willing to be confined to the rubric. You’ll decipher DJ Celeste, DJ Baby Anne, Freestylers, Debbie Deb, M.I.A., Kim Leoni, Lady Sovereign, Santigold, That Brunette, Afrika Bambaataa, Janelle Monae, and even a bit of the old glowing grapevines/cherry disco ball of Marina and the Diamonds. Francis herself has cited influence from PJ Harvey, CocoRosie, James Taylor, and Destiny’s Child all in one thought.
Here’s the problem with trying to post any of the aforementioned as even the croquembouche luring you into the world bakery that is Aluna Francis: half of them are male and nearly all of them are white. While there is immeasurable beauty, grace, and transcendence to be delighted in and doted on in maleness and whiteness, it has been done to distraction up to this point in time, has it not? Worse than that, it has been done in many cases to exclusion. A sick etiolation has quietly, but forcefully, promoted a certain disenfranchisement of this type of artist from what she is now repossessing. All of the artists listed in that litany of references are the binary code of brilliance, but not one is equivalent to the task of accurately defining a female artist of color attempting to work with surrealist fruit, jewels, polo, and 18th-century court dressing motifs in the dance music medium.
Imagine the struggle for a woman of words such as myself upon coming teeth to titanium with the fact that there simply exist no direct precursive reference points with which to faithfully recount this archduchess of amplitude. What is she like? There, one gets closer by reverting to imagery, rather than language, as what she is saying and what she is simply do not translate in tepid old talk. She is like perspex in dusty pink. Opium opulence. Rimbaud. A floral sea. Elsa Schiaparelli’s “shocking-pink.” Ninotchka, but with nougat. Neo-gingerbread. All of this. None of this. Now imagine you are Aluna Francis, viewed as the voluptuous newcomer, to the degree that words dry up around talk of you, at a table you hewed yourself – out of your own bone. Whatever you would say next at the moment of that kind of epiphany is where Renaissance picks up.
Aluna Francis herself deftly explained the purpose and power driving this assiduous release and the manner in which the shadow logs of the Black Renaissance inspired her in these recordings:
“The outcasts have found each other. Renaissance sums a defiant, rule-breaking, and transitional election of new culture. To me, this album represents that within its own small, individual world. I’ve gone through the process of owning myself, and this is the celebration. It’s not a party with tables where you’re popping bottles of champagne in high-heeled shoes. It’s in the woods, around the fire, and everyone looks sexy in the bloody fire-light.”
With Francis womanning piano, drums, and co-production on this record, besides having written every word herself, Renaissance exists as a hard-boiled war correspondent’s jukebox, taking every jingoized or borrowed-but-never-returned version of Blackness and of womanhood, separately and together, that ever preceded it to the mat once and for all, but doing so in a way that somehow swaddles burls of grief in fader and funnel cake. Jonathan Franzen brilliantly asserted that, “There are few things harder to imagine than other people’s conversations about yourself.” Renaissance shows that Aluna Francis won’t make anyone imagine what she says when they walk away, and most importantly, does not grant anyone space to say of her what she has not already said of herself – she sings it before anyone can say it here, brazenly and for all to hear. She uses the unsayable to aid her own punch through, for her daughter, for your daughter, and for all future daughters to come.
Lead track “I’ve Been Starting to Love All the Things I Hate” is an acerbic ode to good mistakes, cheating on time itself, and making sober friends with destiny, eventually devolving into drums as big as Big Country and chants that sound like Serengeti sub bass. “Warrior” (featuring SG Lewis) is a white-sugar binge, gamely indulged in at 2am whilst playing Ms. Pacman. “Envious” impounds a filthy little late-70’s underbeat worthy of Kool and the Gang and asymmetrical synth waterfalls accentuate a warning about dear Francis’ temper button. She winningly calls this one her “cry dance” song, and you will too.
“Don’t Hit My Line” accommodates the most old-skool first-wave-rave Jungle/House atmosphere of them all, and performs the added service of fully substantiating Francis as a virago apart even when suffering the jading kind of lonely heartbreak that can cripple lesser beings. Most women–even strapping and unyielding women – when they write about the boys that don’t call, become self-pity in platform shoes. Aluna Francis apparently just cools out even further and becomes a soft-focus mystery and a little bit Stereo MCs. With the inveighing line, “When I’ve got nothing better to do / I think of you,” she intends to make this unsuitable suitor about as comfortable as a sofa of saw-horses even if he does call. On “Get Paid” Francis is not only in Sephardic powwow with Princess Nokia and Jada Kingdom, but also making a uniquely femme stockade village of her very first interpolation ever, using “Heads High” by Mr. Vegas to alembic effect.
“The Recipe”, exalting itself with support from Haitian-Canadian DJ and producer KAYTRANADA, contains a Muppets-in-Hawaii kind of sound coupled with this infernally glossy gibe: “I do something for me / You do something for me / If I like what I see / You got the recipe.” How I do tip my wing to a woman whom, even in the pregnant stages of flirtation, lets a man know he’s already in debt and that the ensuing power dynamic will proceed with that biological fact in mind! “Off Guard” rouses a vibe Aaliyah would nod to, and “Back Up” sounds like bubbles underwater that burst into the air bearing Francis’ helium words, scattershot and bouncy. She proves that the human/technology connection, through her lens, is not a soulless one and that it serves to mechanize a voice not otherwise hearable. Renaissance is the most potent reminder you’ll hear this year that chic is always a frame of mind.
Anytime an art form goes from niche to pop, its original depth and mystique can die a gruesome public death. In its efforts to call out the kulaks, a great swath of dance music for a good minute became almost constitutionally conservative. In the hands of an artist as aeronautically endowed as Aluna Francis, it gets its punk rock liberty spikes back, and all of the hardest subjects for most people to talk about suddenly coalesce in danceable kaffeeklatsch. That we have come as far as late 2020 and still a fully realized, uncategorizable record from a woman of jigsawed colors and backgrounds on a major label is still a novelty is chastening condemnation of our collective culture enough. However, no forward-thinking movement could ever have designed a more perfect pioneer bride for positive deconstructivism than Aluna Francis. Through her angled mirrors and black lights, she implicitly jams the circuits with intricate interlays and zero artifice where mere electro enthusiasts might simply retread old rackets. She is a cashmere column dress in a universe of iridescent spandex and cliché casualty figures, a focus group of one on all matters concerning the undergirdings of transformation.
This propulsive record sounds very like the found scribblings of a scoop-hungry journalist in the midst of a think-piece on Afrofuturism. It is an undeterrable heyday of fringing signals and eruptions of rebellion. Scratch the earlier statement that Francis allows you no absolution from the pulse. At the album’s closure, on a track lower-case titled “whistle,” she turns into Sade sampling Sneaker Pimps, though even here she admirably strings her holy harp with razor wire. Renaissance, woman!