Release Date: Jun 28, 2016
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
When Freetown Sound got its online release a few weeks back, Alton Sterling and Philando Castle were still alive. By the time the CD and vinyl versions hit shelves in August they will have both been dead nearly a month; black men shot by police in a disproportionate show of violence. Like Michael Brown, like Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, like Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, like Mark Duggan and so many others before them.
If the masterful Cupid Deluxe found Dev Hynes perfecting the sound of Blood Orange, Freetown Sound is his attempt to perfect the project's message, saying everything he's always wanted to say while attempting to remove himself as the central voice. Or, as he recently put it: "With this one, I wanted to create the world, but then I wanted to disappear in it. "On Freetown Sound, Hynes has done just that, interlacing samples — of De La Soul, J Dilla, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marlon Riggs and a woman from his father's native Freetown, Sierra Leone speaking in that country's native Krio — into his pop compositions to create a sound world in which others have as much room to speak as he does.
In July 2015, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, British singer/composer Dev Hynes released “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?”, an 11-minute assessment of race and self-worth at a time of intense struggle between blacks and law enforcement. “This is not from my forthcoming album,” Hynes asserted, “just some things on my mind. ” The cover art depicted an elegant black figure—his back straight, his fingers clutched deep into his own flesh.
Last fall, Dev Hynes released “Sandra’s Smile”, a charged ballad about the death of Sandra Bland that related to her story on an individual level, portraying her as a person rather than a symbol, crafting a poignant tribute to her life. By making the political personal, Hynes emphasized the humanity at stake in the struggle for equality. It’s a method he expands throughout Freetown Sound, the long-awaited follow up to his last album as Blood Orange, 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, which introduced the world to his ability of capturing universal sentiments of heartbreak and melancholy in deeply specific ways.
Having had multiple previous incarnations as part of Test Icicles and Lightspeed Champion, Dev Hynes is a man of many musical faces. But it appears that his now three album old Blood Orange moniker is to be a welcome permanent fixture in the modern music consciousness. 2013 breakthrough record Cupid Deluxe wooed the listener into an enamoured fixation with a perfect blend of '80s-inflected R&B, funk, and soul.
Devonte Hynes’s decade-long transformation from noisepunk oik to R&B polymath has been well-documented. Yet while the reviews have been rave and the collabs have been impeccable, there’s always been the whiff of the dilettante about the ex-Test Icicle/Lightspeed Champion. Can someone so able to swap scenes so easily – and annoyingly successfully – really mean it? It’s time to get over any hand-wringing as Freetown Sound is very, very good indeed.
Freetown Sound, like the Sierra Leone locale which it takes its name from, the birthplace of Devonté Hynes’s father, is a half-truth of a name, like America: free in theory but questionably in practice. Because while Saint Augustine of Hippo, Latin name Aurelius, was likely the (black) ancestor of freed slaves, history saw that his enduring intellectual and theological legacy bound him back to white supremacy. Whitewashed.
Sometimes it feels like Dev Hynes is everywhere. Excepting even the obvious — the magazine covers for his work as Blood Orange, the late-night television appearances, the songwriting credits on tracks by real-life pop stars — he has a way of popping up where you least expect him. If you live in Manhattan at least, you’re bound to run into him palling around with the skaters in Washington Square Park, contemplating conceptualist art at cavernous Lower East Side gallery spaces, or slinking onto the stage solo as a surprise show headlined by his pal Julian Casablancas.
Dev Hynes described his third LP under his Blood Orange moniker as something "like my version of [The Beastie Boys'] Paul's Boutique. " It's that and plenty more: Opening with a butter-smooth R&B chorale that segues into a poetry-slam jazz collage using Ashlee Haze's incandescent "For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)," followed by lush Eighties-style synth-pop, Freetown Sound is one deep avant-pop mixtape, a masterpiece of composition, curation and choreography addressing present-day black art and experience while refusing limits at every turn. Part memoir in the context of a global community (the title refers to Sierra Leone, where his family has roots), there's nothing simple about the inescapable politics here – although to brand Freetown Sound merely a "political album" is reductive.
There's nothing more important and profound than a safe space. A hub, however small or rare, that you can truly exist in. Whether it's church, a festival grounds, a supermarket or a crowded bar with three dollar shots, the details of that haven are yours authentically, but they're also telling. There, in a specific time and place, you're you.
Tracking the career of Devonte Hynes is like watching a man trying to figure out who exactly he is; growing up, moving away and even delving back into his own past. He has, after all, been in the musical spotlight since the age of 18, with a chameleonic ability to always stay bang on trend. The riotous, acid-tongued Test Icicles were our first proper glimpse of Hynes.
It seems strange to think now that Dev Hynes’ career pretty much started off as a joke. As a member of Test Icicles, he cashed in on the whole ‘dance-punk’ craze a decade ago before the outfit split after just one album, admitting that they weren’t really big fans of the music that they played. Now, a decade on, Hynes is one of the most in-demand producers in the world, a figure feted by names such as Solange Knowles, Sky Ferreira and Carly Rae Jepsen.
A lot of hip-hop and R&B in the last few years seems to be very explicitly informed by the socio-political climate. This in contrast to being subconsciously influenced, which is more common. And the results, at the very least, have made the music more ambitious. Some examples: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, perhaps the most obvious example; Le1f’s Riot Boi, which Blood Orange helped produce the closer of, and which broadened Butterfly’s message to include the LGBT community; Beyonce’s latest, which included an anthem for black women; D’Angelo’s Black Messiah; Vic Mensa’s latest EP.
There are so many collaborators here, but none really stand out like Samantha Urbani or Skepta did on Cupid Deluxe. They instead seem to represent the circle of influence and influencers present in Hynes' life; there's always been an argument that identity is a reflection of the company you keep. The number of guests present, whether with full vocals or just short clips, only goes to show how far Hynes has expanded his sphere in the last three years.
Dev Hynes has called Freetown Sound his most personal album to date. Indeed, its reference points include not just gender, race, and sexuality, but also his father's native Africa and even his complex relationship with God. And musically, the album sets out to do what Hynes's two prior releases under the Blood Orange moniker couldn't: rebut the argument that his best songs have been produced for and performed by other artists.
Billed as his most personal album yet, Freetown Sound explores the multi-faceted producer Dev Hynes’s ancestry, both cultural and musical. In his 20s, Hynes left London, and a series of indie bands, for New York and production work with Solange Knowles and Sky Ferreira; Hynes’s parents left Sierra Leone and Guyana for London at 21. Themes of exile, cultural confusion, Christianity and blackness permeate both generations, to which Hynes adds a hip-hop sensibility, sound collage, sexuality and#blacklivesmatter.
Sweltering with the heat of a Brooklyn pavement at the height of summer, ‘Freetown Sound’ is the full documentation of Dev Hynes’ transition from scrappy post-punk wonder-kid to slinky New York vintage store aficionado. As a result, it’s frustratingly piecemeal – his evermore-complex mind-set battling against itself for attention throughout. When one element breaks through, it’s dazzling.
The career of Dev Hynes is an intriguing one. As a pop producer and songwriter, he’s carved out a niche for himself in recent years, not so much as a reliable hitmaker, but as someone stars can turn to when their albums need an injection of scenester cool: Kylie Minogue and Carly Rae Jepsen have availed themselves of his services, while his collaborations with Solange Knowles are often held to have influenced her sister Beyoncé to take a less mainstream direction. As an artist in his own right, he’s proved trickier to pin down, shifting musical styles in a way that’s suggestive less of eclecticism than of fitful restlessness.
In an Instagram post three weeks ago, Devonté Hynes, better known as Blood Orange, explicitly declared who his third record is for: “everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the [underappreciated]… it’s a clapback.” It’s for those who, like Hynes, find themselves at odds with the dominant culture. Freetown Sound is the first record by Hynes since a 2013 fire destroyed his New York City apartment, taking with it computers full of demos, his musical instruments, and his dog, Cupid, whose namesake was emblazoned across the cover of Hynes’ record Cupid Deluxe released just one month before. This new effort seems to be born out of the ashes of that loss.
Used to be the arrival of an album big enough to contend for year’s best was an event: something a record company spent time setting up scrupulously, seeding advance stories, securing media coverage to whet anticipation and fuel desire. Something you marked on the calendar, even. But now we live in the age of Beyoncé — more properly, the age of “Beyoncé,” the name of the “video album” that artist dropped without warning in December 2013.
This past month was a generally slow one in terms of album releases, and yet Carl and I were able to find some true gems that will surely stick with us through the entire year. I was downright elated every time I spun the rather joyful Wildflower, The Avalanches comeback statement, while Carl gathered great insight from Dev Hynes's artful pop opus Freetown Sound. Other highlights include Schoolboy Q's ambitious Blank Face LP, as well as Metronomy's infectious Summer 08.
In 2014, Devonte Hynes of Blood Orange wore a shirt to his set at Lollapalooza that listed the names of black people killed by police in recent years. Hours later, he claimed he and girlfriend Samantha Urbani were assaulted by security guards at the festival site. “The irony after my T-shirt and message this morning, we are in shock,” he said on Twitter.
The past and present are in constant conversation on Dev Hynes’s third album as Blood Orange. The listening experience, much like that of 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, is like setting out on an aimless stroll and letting bits and pieces of conversations and thoughts wash over you. Audio samples of Venus Xtravaganza, De La Soul, Marlon Riggs and Ta-Nehisi Coates brush up against pop singers Debbie Harry, Kelsey Lu, Nelly Furtado and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Inevitably, there are a number of cameos along the way – Nelly Furtado on ‘Hadron Collider’, Carly Rae Jepsen on ‘Better Than Me’, even Debbie Harry on the lithe disco-funk of ‘E. V. P.