Freetown Sound is an arresting work on multiple levels
Blood Orange’s new album Freetown Sound is an arresting work on multiple levels: in its portrayal of a black person in a landscape overflowing with hostility, violence and tension; and in its relation of struggle with self-acceptance and personal identity, particularly within a marginalized community.
It’s a difficult balancing act for Blood Orange mastermind Dev Hynes, crafting an album that is both about something as large as racism and subjugation and as intimate as carving out a personal niche. But he pulls it off beautifully on a project that already feels like an item for a future time capsule. Hynes asserts on Instagram that, “My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the under-appreciated, it’s a clapback,” and he takes that responsibility to heart.
Hynes is a tremendously gifted musician and producer, and he understands that his message is better conveyed through many unified voices, not his alone. Celebrated pop stars like Carly Rae Jepsen and Nelly Furtado appear along with rising stars like Empress Of and Ian Isaiah. Porches’ Aaron Maine even contributes a few chords. No matter how high profile the individual artists may be, they all seem to understand that message is more important than ego. With its rich textures, frequent interludes and powerful excerpts from black artists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vince Staples, and Atlanta poet Ashlee Haze, the album has a cinematic feeling that can be overwhelming, but is undeniable.
Hynes showed the ability to work in a rich, ‘80s inspired pop sound when he co-produced Jepsen’s “All That” last year, and that evocative, emotional style serves as the backbone for much of Freetown Sound. Reeds, synths and chunky drums provide the sonic landscape, a radical departure from much contemporary alternative R&B that uses minimalism as a shortcut for complexity and emotion.
“Chance” is slow and soulful, but there’s an undeniable rage bubbling up through the surface. The warm, reflective instrumental contrasts with Hynes’ frustration over the lack of opportunities available for him and others to express individualism, as well as issues of ill-conceived cultural appropriation. He recounts a story from a Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky show he attended: “You’re the dark skinned nigga in a sold out crowd/ Looking at the girl with the thick, blonde braids/ And you’re tryin’ to make out what her t-shirt says/ No one really cares what thug life means/ They wanna be surrounded but they hate to breathe,” he sings, with help from Kelsey Lu.
The poppier “Best to You” is equally heartbreaking, courtesy of a powerful hook from Empress Of. The track deals with the constraints of a disingenuous relationship, and the suffocating feeling of stifling your true identity—as Empress Of says, “Call it all for nothing/ But I’d rather be nothing to you/ Than be a part of something/ Of something that I didn’t do.”
Elsewhere, “E.V.P.” is funky and confrontational, with vocals that range from deep and authoritative to wispy and ethereal. Hynes is able to use both his voice and his collaborators’ with the same creativity that he does a guitar or keyboard. “Hands Up” is another stunner, beginning sweet and serene before turning into a testimonial of the fear and anger felt by African-Americans today, including a Trayvon Martin reference that cuts deep: “Keep your hood off when you’re walking.”
Even if not every moment on Freetown Sound is musically stunning (the pretty “I Know” is soupy and muddled), there isn’t a second of the LP that’s dispensable. The album of course exists in a contentious climate where police shootings and #blacklivesmatter debates force everyone to evaluate their role in society, but the album’s strength comes from Hynes and his guests rising to the occasion to make a truly thought-provoking and singular record. This album aims at those who struggle with their role in black and queer society, but it’s also a work that we can all learn something from.