After over a decade in the spotlight, Big Freedia has become a sneakily unstoppable force. Following years of hard work on the New Orleans circuit, leading to a long-running reality series and her debut album, 2014’s Just Be Free, Freedia appeared on Beyoncé’s “Formation” in 2016 and kicked off a spate of successful, high-profile collabs. Now having been sampled on two No. 1 hits (“Break My Soul,” “Nice for What”) and released a couple of hit-or-miss EPs to fill the gap, Freedia takes a welcome victory lap with Central City, her long-awaited second album. Full of bass-heavy beats, idiosyncratic guest stars, and booming rally cries that extol the virtues of ass-shaking and self-empowerment, it’s easily one of the most effective party-starting records of the year.
Central City is a livewire ode to New Orleans, its title referencing a working-class neighborhood in the 11th Ward that has been home to plenty of musical luminaries, from jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden to hip-hop mogul Master P. Here, Freedia pays tribute to the people and culture that raised her. Over a springy synth and chanted backing vocals on “Life Lessons,” Freedia speaks to how her mother instilled her with the confidence she carries today: “Big Freedia, big Freddie, big heart of gold/I was a choir girl and a mama’s boy,” she raps, “The whole 3rd Ward, they knew my voice… Mama gave ya Freedia, now the whole world blessed.” During the late highlight “NOLA Babies,” she captures the city’s irrepressible spirit with breakneck tempo shifts, record scratches, and air horns. By the end, breathless from the song’s pace, she tosses off an ad-libbed question you’ve already learned the answer to: “And these hoes wanna know what’s going on with the NOLA baby?”
Freedia branches out more than ever, switching between classic bounce and the occasional hard-nosed, industrial grind, often within the same song. The unpredictability gives Central City a sense of constant motion; both the stomping opener “Central City Freestyle” and hip-thrusting “Throw It Back” are bound to go off during live shows, with hairpin melodic turns, thundering handclaps, and call-and-response verses delivered with the precision of a drill sergeant. The more serrated Freedia’s music gets, the more engrossing it becomes: “Pop That” employs an irresistible blend of pitch-shifted vocals, ominous horror movie-style keys, and enveloping bass. On “Bigfoot,” one of her most thrilling shit-talking songs yet, she dips down to a menacing growl while evoking big-drop-era Skrillex. The album is a dizzying collage that’s in service of Freedia having an excellent time; that she stops halfway through for an interlude that remixes the Pepto Bismol jingle only corroborates her playful, anything-goes approach.
Central City reaffirms Freedia’s easy rapport with disparate artists. Oakland rapper Kamaiyah smoothly counterbalances Freedia’s swagger on the ticking “Big Tyme,” while the balmy “$100 Bill” emphasizes feeling opulent in every facet of your life with the help of a honeyed chorus from Ciara and a run of increasingly excellent punch lines. (“Looking like a jet!” Freedia commands, “Gas me up!”). Even Freedia’s more surprising choices work in her favor: R&B legend Faith Evans matches her bravado on the sauntering “Bitch You Want,” brushing each “I’m not to be fucked with” with the featherlight touch of a great ’90s throwback. On “El Niño,” Freedia organizes her most bizarre hometown team-up yet, enlisting Lil Wayne and teacher-turned-rapper Boyfriend for a stadium-sized song built around ridiculous hooks (“I’m about to go El Niño,” “This bitch about to be gone with the wind”) that somehow still win you over.
Like the rest of Central City’s highs, it speaks to her expansive curatorial vision and towering charisma. Though bounce still provides the bedrock for the album’s delights, she expands on the rattling genre in ways that stretch its possibilities. It’s easy to picture the unflappable “Pop That” and closer “Voodoo Magic,” with its celebratory horns and thumping drums courtesy of New Orleans eight-piece the Soul Rebels, providing the soundtrack to countless Pride and Mardi Gras events to come. Central City is a distillation of Freedia’s pump-up talents and endless charm.