Dev Hynes’s career thus far has achieved a near-perfect symmetry with the musical landscape that surrounds him. The London-born artist was a member of short-lived electro-punk group Test Icicles right around the time that the trend of genre-mashing in 2000s indie was hitting its first peak; his folk-leaning work as Lightspeed Champion arrived at a time when straightforward, pastoral fare was enjoying a few final breaths in indie’s soon-to-be-dissolved boundaries.
His debut as Blood Orange, 2011’s Coastal Grooves, took on the guise of spiky new wave; the project’s breakthrough follow-up, 2013’s shimmering Cupid Deluxe, revealed an earthy, radiant take on the sounds of R&B just as the genre was commingling with the sounds of underground and vice versa. The last decade of indie culture has seen plenty of trend-chasing, but it’s important to note that this aforementioned symmetry seems totally incidental—Hynes has always come across as someone riding his own wavelength, and that extends to Freetown Sound, Blood Orange’s brilliant, beatific third full-length.
At once an extension of and a radical departure from the sounds found on Cupid Deluxe, it yet again seems like unbelievable kismet that Freetown Sound is seeing release within a week’s span of collagist pop legends The Avalanches’ first album in 16 years, Wildflower: On Freetown Sound, Hynes draws equal inspiration from the cut-and-paste psychedelia of production duo and Paul’s Boutique architects The Dust Brothers and the late-period eclecticism of late hip-hop producer J Dilla (whose signature airhorn rips open the weightless, minor-key passion of “Love Ya”), a deeply affecting metropolitan swirl of moonlit pop, airy funk, the dry smack of early hip-hop, and deep, downcast house music.
Freetown Sound unfolds like a mixtape in the most literal sense, an approach that’s suited his music well. Hynes’s work as Blood Orange first clicked with me on UK rockers Foals’ 2012 installment in electronic label !K7’s Tapes series, with the dusky 2011 single “Dinner” as a glorious sore thumb amidst straightforward club fare; during a run of shows last year at NYC’s famed Apollo Theatre, Hynes sold a limited-run and real-deal cassette of collaborative material with Canadian pop artist Nelly Furtado, Hadron Collider (the title track of which appears on the tail end of Freetown Sound).
So while Freetown Sound’s shape is that of a cohesive, considerately arranged full-length, it also sounds lovingly handmade, with abrupt transitions, sample-based intrusions, and sublime interludes stitched together seamlessly. The New York City-based Hynes has said that he wrote much of Freetown Sound in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, and while the album is studded with the city’s cultural imprint—Blondie’s Debbie Harry contributes vocals to “E.V.P.,” and the ghost of late downtown icon Arthur Russell is felt through the occasional emergence of cello, laid down beautifully by the classically trained Hynes—the album’s true metropolitan mark is, like the parks that inspired it, how it absolutely teems with life and sound. The noise of the city has often proved an ambient balm for many of its inhabitants, and Freetown Sound finds Hynes transmuting its power into a work that’s wholly soothing and spectral.
Far from being a work consumed with bliss, Freetown Sound is a political record in the sense that, for many who live in the modern world, the simple act of waking up and living—of living on your own terms, and keeping your life as something that’s yours—is a constant and political struggle. Named after the capital of Sierra Leone, where Hynes’s father was born, Freetown Sound zeroes in on identity as it relates to race, gender, and sexuality, equating the search for home with a search for self—”A place to save your face / And keep your calm when you’re uphill,” as Hynes intones in “E.V.P.”.
Sometimes, these emotions and ideas are addressed diaristically, as in the closing minutes of “Chance,” which details Hynes’ reaction at seeing a white girl with cornrows wearing a “THUG LIFE” T-shirt at an A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator show; on “Hands Up,” he surrounds himself with storm-cloud atmospherics and palm-muted guitar while expressing naked pleas that double as indictments of a system that routinely condones and encourages violence against people of color: “Sure enough they’re gonna take your body.” As the chiming heart of Freetown Sound, “But You” is generously prescriptive in its message of acceptance, self-discovery, and reaching a greater understanding in the face of hatred and enforced standards of normalcy: “Teach yourself about your brother / Cause there’s no one else but you / You are special in your own way.”
“My album is for everyone told they’re not BLACK enough, too BLACK, too QUEER, not QUEER the right way, the underappreciated, it’s a CLAPBACK,” Hynes posted on Instagram along with a Polaroid of himself and the symbol associated with Prince (whose ghost hovers over, but never threatens to overtake, Freetown Sound’s stylistic aims) several weeks before Freetown Sound’s release.
The statement is much more than a mere dedication, as many of the album’s highlights come from the inclusion of voices other than Hynes—from the Paris Is Burning samples that dot the lovely “Desirée” to the coterie of female voices that provide star turns throughout. It’s impossible to talk about Freetown Sound without mentioning the raw power of its opening track, “By Ourselves,” featuring an excerpted sample of poet Ashlee Haze reading “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)”; Haze’s searing, impassioned delivery only adds more power to her words, and the timbre of her voice takes a tone that is as imbued with raw celebration as it is a feminist declaration of feminism and individuality.
There are plenty of albums in recent years that critics and listeners of Freetown Sound have drawn comparisons to, but the record that I keep thinking about during my many repeated listens is dance producer/queer activist Terre Thaemlitz’s 2009 masterwork as DJ Sprinkles, Midtown 120 Blues—a record that also opens with a powerful spoken-word reflection on the past and how it ties to making sense of the present surrounding us.
Midtown 120 Blues is an explicitly political work addressing themes such as queer identity, structural violence, and mass cultural appropriation, with Thaemlitz expressing herself through the filter of luxurious, impossibly gorgeous deep house. And while Hynes has made one of the year’s most powerful, fiercely individual albums, Freetown Sound may very well be Midtown 120 Blues’ stylistic kin: a record that addresses topics equally painful and self-revelatory, wrapping the message in impossibly beautiful sounds. The urgency of its message is and has been perpetually relevant—for thousands of years—and its importance as an autobiographical document, a tool for self-discovery, and an oasis for anyone who’s felt marginalized or threatened by the society around them will surely prove essential for many years to come.
Larry Fitzmaurice is special in his own way. Follow him on Twitter.