Blood Orange - Freetown Sound

by Kate Burgess

Freetown Sound is Devonte Hynes’s third album under the moniker Blood Orange. It’s an extensive album clocking at 58 minutes. It reads as his most ambitious because of its length, but also because of the themes and collaborations (Debbie Harry, Empress Of and Nelly Furtado to name a few) it is packing.

Freetown Sound makes for immensely enjoyable listening, feeling almost like a mixtape in its construction and scope. Hynes engages with so many issues, his characteristic tenderness and soul interacting beautifully with his exploration of black masculinity, racism, immigration and feminism. In many ways the album is about negotiating belonging and self in a world fraught with imbalances and violence.

Hynes’s explained that his “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.” This has helped guide my experience with the album, and works as a welcome reminder of the ways that listeners can be reflective allies. Hynes insists that as I enjoy his music I also have to recognise his resistance and challenge to what he recognises as a privileged listening base.  Freetown Sound is not for me, and the moments of Hynes’s own tender, intimate identity search places reflection at the forefront of an experience that could easily be subsumed into the fervent consumption of black cultural output.

Hynes’s penchant for 80s aesthetics crops up throughout with; E.V.P inflected with funk and disco but also creeping in is Hynes’s more indie pop sensibilities of the Coastal Grooves era.  But You evokes a kind of MJ pop ballad feel as Hynes sings about how he has to check himself on the street as a Black man. The song masquerades as romantic with its crooning refrain, “you were special in your own way,” but inscribed in it is the conflict of checking the self he knows and the self society types him as – it’s double consciousness. This is thematic – Hynes’s (and other’s) negotiation and struggle with what the hetronormative world sees them as, or allows them to be. And it’s relevant now - taking to Instagram after the tragic news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths with a picture of Tupac that points back to the lyrics of Chance; “No one ever really cares what ‘Thug Life’ means.” Freetown Sound is full of such pressing reminders that Black culture is appreciated in a way that Black lives are not.

The mixtape bricolage of genres, the jumps in tone, and, what some reviewers have called messy finishing, all point to Hynes reclaiming the cultural capital of Blackness; using the vogue of house, disco and R&B in a collaborative and copy-and-paste kind of way Hynes resists the kind of depoliticization, or whitewashing, of such genres by employing them as his arsenal for talking about queerness, blackness and feminism.  This covering of a wider aural range than Cupid Deluxe seems ambitious and collaborative. Opening track By Ourselves samples Ta-Nehisi Coastes’s spoken word about Missy Elliot and the rarity of representation as a young Black woman which seems to situate the album’s subsequent sampling and quoting as Hynes’ own examples of piecing together an idea of identity that is often denied or appropriated. Samples both augment and interrupt the music that acts almost like a scrapbook reminder of the influences and experiences that inform both the content and musical styles; Freetown Sound repeatedly situates itself in blackness and queerness. For example Desiree samples Venus Xtravaganza of Paris Is Burning over a really satisfying and plonky dance riff, resituating Xtravaganza’s fate and its inevitable reference to violence and transphobia onto a house-y disco bass-line not dissimilar to Jamie XX’s In Colour and reiterating the lineage between queerness and disco to vitally remind us of the violent contexts from which these genre’s originate.

This is where Freetown Sound triumphs. It does not shy away from the wider contexts of its project. What starts as a personal exploration, with Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone) being the birthplace of Hynes’s father, becomes a bigger celebratory ode to the immensely rich cultural creativity of minority groups and a nudging reminder at the precarity of its appreciation/consumption. A busy album that begs careful relistening.