Francis Starlite might just be becoming one of the most high-profile indie artists in the world. After having a major role on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and having praised heaped upon him by not only Chance, but his mentor Kanye West, expectations for this debut studio album were understandably high. Francis and the Lights is essentially just one person, although he states that “The Lights” are anyone who may be collaborating with him at that moment. It is fantastic that The Lights turn out to be some of the most talented writers and producers in the music industry, with many high-profile appearances strewn across the album’s tracklist.
Francis’ distorted, harmonic and ambient vocal style has drawn heavy comparisons between him and Bon Iver, who appears on standout track “Friends” and has writing credits on two more. While this may be true, the instrumentals and lyrics are much happier and upbeat, fitting in nicely with the overall sound blaring from all corners of Chicago at the moment. The album is brief, but it is as dynamic, uplifting and create as anything we’ve heard this year. It is easy to see why these visionary artists appreciate and support him — the combination of these energetic and abrasive techno and electronic synths, hip hop and trap beats, and harmonic, happy and positive vocals in the vein of a modern day Phil Collins all collide to create a sound which is truly something entirely new. While the album is not entirely perfect, I’m not sure I’ve seen a new genre created in this way since Kanye’s 2013 project “Yeezus”.
The album also ties together conceptually, telling the general story of the ups and downs of a relationship. This seems to be a common characteristic of truly great albums lately. The tracks slowly progress from Francis somewhat begrudgingly attending a party, to meeting a girl there and quickly falling in love, to the deterioration of the relationship, to accepting this and moving on, and of course ending with the jubilant refrain – “We could be friends”. While a general theme of the album seems to be staying positive at all costs, the wide range of emotions this album displays over the course of this story is still impressive. Even as Francis’ voice is obscured by distortion and synth-samplers, his emotional state is still communicated clearly to the listeners.
The only song on the project which is entirely sad is “My City’s Gone” — and when Francis finally wants to express his sadness, he goes all out. It speaks to the strength of a musician as a songwriter and artist when a song so minimal with such simple lyrics can still be so breathtakingly affecting, haunting and sad. Kanye West is the true master of this, capable of evoking so much emotion in his voice without saying a word. He continues to do this in his brief feature on the track, humming and echoing Francis’ words. With beautifully plain language, Francis compares his failing relationship to the deteriorating landscape of his city – Oakland, CA. Set to the tune of little more than a piano pitifully plunking out a few notes, the descent to this place after brightly exclaiming “Can I say something crazy? I love you” in previous track “May I Have This Dance” is incredibly depressing – and effective.
Francis, Kanye, Bon Iver, and director Jake Schreier on set of the “Friends” video
“Friends” is another shining moment on the album. Before I was fully aware of what Francis & The Lights was, I was drawn to the track because of the presence of a staggering number of my favorite musicians. The song was the inspiration for Chance The Rapper’s “Summer Friends”, and Francis sampled his own song to produce the track. In addition to featured artists Kanye West and Bon Iver, production credits are given to Cashmere Cat (Kanye, Ariana Grande), Ariel Rechtshaid (HAIM, Sky Ferreira), pop mastermind Benny Blanco and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij (Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean). The song itself is a gospel-tinged expression of pure happiness, driven by an incredible synth lead as Francis, Kanye and Bon Iver’s voices all merge and interchange almost unnoticeably. It is incredibly powerful and structurally complex, and as it builds to its climax, Francis’ offer: “Just put your hand on my shoulder” stands as a declaration to the world to love one another. We could be friends, after all.
This album is 30 minutes of the expression of raw human emotions in their purest form, set to a genre-defying mix of sounds drawing inspiration from a wide-ranging set of influences. At times, it sounds like the experimental EDM Daft Punk might create, a jazzy, funk disco number, a downtrodden piano ballad, and everything in between. With that list, you certainly wouldn’t expect him to interpolate a line from Drake’s “Worst Behaviour” at a critical moment in his outro. With the growing number of famous friends Francis is accumulating, it won’t be long before he is a household name. He is already a brilliant creative force.
Favourite Tracks: Friends, I Want You To Shake, May I Have This Dance, My City’s Gone, It’s Alright To Cry
Least Favourite Track: Running Man/Gospel OP1