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Review: “Freetown Sound” – Blood Orange

Freetown Sound

Editor’s Note: This review was originally published by Off-Kilter.

This is a political album but, as is the norm with Dev Hynes, it is so much more than that. Beyond being a fusion of jazz, pop and R&B with influences ranging from Michael Jackson to Prince and everything in between, Freetown Sound is equal parts a celebration of black art, a commentary on gender, orientation and a plethora of other societal issues.

The first song of the album, “By Ourselves,” gets things off to a fitting start. The verse is handled by the trio of Ava Raiin, Ian Isiah and Hynes, while the second half is taken over by a sample of Ashlee Haze’s poem “For Colored Girls.” The poem praises Missy Elliot for being a positive role model for black girls and girls with body-types that don’t align with the common standard of “beauty.” The theme of the song is reminiscent of Roxanne Gay’s essay “I Once Was Miss America,” where she praises Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America pageant winner. Gay writes, “That moment made us believe we too could be beautiful.”

“By Ourselves” perfectly reflects Hyne’s intentions with the project, “to create the world, and then disappear into it.” The album has a lot of collaborators, most of them female. Ava Raiin, Empress Of, Debbie Harry, BEA1991, Nelly Furtado, Kelsey Lu, Carly Rae Jepsen and Zuri Marley all supply vocals. Ashlee Haze’s poetry is sampled and Venus Xtravaganza, a transgender performer, has a monologue from the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning sampled on “Desirée.” The album artwork was also shot by Brooklyn-based photographer Deana Lawson. Hynes does a wonderful job balancing his presence on the project with that of his fellow collaborators; appearing when appropriate and taking a backseat when he deems necessary.

Another powerful song, “Hands Up,” is full of slurred synths and plays like a subdued 80s pop anthem with a seductive hook where Hyne’s croons “Hands up, get up,” after almost every line. The song is so smooth that you almost miss the seriousness in his words. Lines like, “Are you sleeping with the lights on baby?” and “Keep your hood off when you’re walking cause they” bring the listener back to a harsh reality. The song concludes with a #BlackLivesMatter chant abruptly forcing its way onto the scene. “Don’t Shoot” is chanted eight times leaving the tone of the song surprisingly somber.

The song that shines noticeably brighter than its counterparts is “Hadron Collider.” Nelly Furtado begins the song by herself and Hynes joins her a few verses in. The production is a pleasant mixture of uptempo bass and somber undertones of piano keys. The initial melancholic nature of the song sounds eerily similar to Lana Del Rey but the combination of Furtado and Hynes quickly dash away any other similarities.

As a whole, the album plays as a sort of sonic collage. Sound bites from cinema, speeches, television and miscellaneous audio clips paired with the sampling of producers like J. Dilla, De La Soul, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Marlon Riggs creates an eclectic soundscape that is all at once intoxicating and, at times, distracting.

When played from front to back it is easy to tell that this is one project. However, hear a few songs separately or on shuffle and you would never guess that they could be from the same project. The difference between some of the songs is night and day. Take, for example, “Chance,” a bass heavy ballad about seeing a white girl in a “thug life” tee shirt at a music festival, and “E.V.P.,” an upbeat song with a distorted indie rock sound that wouldn’t sound out of place on Theophilus London’s 2014 album Vibes. Part of this juxtaposition is what makes the album, and Blood Orange, as an artist, great. For some it may be overbearing, but on Freetown Sound, it’s tasteful and portioned out perfectly.

Dev Hynes wrote and produced this album largely by himself and the end result is purely Blood Orange. One would be hard-pressed to find another album that is as captivating in its content and sound. Or one that dabbles in the political, social and artistic spheres all at once with such grace and ease.

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