The last ten years of Dev Hynes’ music career have shown us that the UK-born songwriter’s artistic reach is extremely wide. Starting off in the mid ’00s with Test Icicles, he harnessed elements of frantic thrash and art punk. When that band wound down, he traded wiry licks for indie folk as Lightspeed Champion. A few years back, a move to New York and an affinity for soft focused 80s pop music led to a rechristening as Blood Orange, resulting a pair of solo records and collaborative work with the likes of Solange Knowles, Carly Rae Jepsen and more.
While Hynes’ current work is quite high profile, his politics haven’t quite gotten as much ink. That is, until now. In the lead up to the release of his third longplayer, Freetown Sound, a hand-scrawled note the artist posted though his Instagram account dedicated the album to anyone “told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated.” A song cycle tackling identity, racism, sexism, gender politics and more, Freetown Sound is a hurricane of ideas cushioned within Blood Orange’s quiet storm of sounds.
Noticeably, it’s not Hynes’ voice that takes centre stage on opening track “By Ourselves,” but that of poet Ashlee Haze, whose lines discuss body type, Missy Elliott, and “a million black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them.” Following the powerful words and mellow jazz horns of the album intro, Blood Orange steps up to discusses his history on next track, “Augustine.” Pre-release info from the singer-songwriter noted the cycles within his heritage, owing to the fact that he and his parents all made major moves around the world at the age of 21. “My father was a young man / My mother off the boat / My eyes were fresh at twenty-one / Bruised but still afloat,” Hynes sings up front above a pop-funk arrangement of spare piano melodies, snickety digital hi-hat and more. As the song goes on, he ties his experiences to those of South African religious leader Nontetha Nkwenkwe and the titular Rome-decrying Christian theologian, St. Augustine.
Throughout, Hynes mixes the personal with the political. “Best to You,” a duet with Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez, is a vulnerable, romantic highlight. “Squash Squash” gives us heartache with the following broken hope couplet: “You chose to fade away with him/ I chose to try and let you in.”
Elsewhere, “Hands Up” mixes one of the record’s most infectiously bumped hooks with Trayvon Martin-referencing lyrics (“keep your hood off when you’re walking”) and a closing #BlackLivesMatter chant. “Desirée,” meanwhile, features a sample of murdered transgender performer Venus Xtravaganza from 1990’s Paris is Burning documentary in which she explains her take on hetero-normative relationships influenced by a sex-based bartering system. “Is anyone your friend,” Hynes inquires suspiciously earlier on the cut.
At 17 songs long, there’s plenty of ideas crammed onto Freetown Sound, and Hynes gets his fair share of help along the way. “Hadron Collider,” a tune issued on a charity cassette release earlier this year, brings BC-born pop star Nelly Furtado to a new generation of fans as she delivers a heavens-reaching chorus hook. Blondie’s Debbie Harry helps out on “E.V.P.,” at least until a frantic and ridiculous roto-tom solo takes over. Giving the collection a more freeform feel, samples of an old KRS-One hip-hop verse and dialogue snippets from writer Ta Nehisi Coates are also slathered around the edges of Blood Orange-crafted originals.
On “Better Than Me,” a twitchy electro track co-sung with Carly Rae Jepsen, Hynes acknowledges much inequality with the opening line, “Ninety-nine percent, I know you’re not fine.” But whether it’s letting guest singers shoulder the load on his own tracks, or threading together narratives of the disenfranchised, Blood Orange has made Freetown Sound his most diverse and representative release yet.
– review by Gregory Adams