Given that it has now been running for longer than his Test Icicles and Lightspeed Champion projects combined, Devonte Hynes’ Blood Orange moniker seems to finally cemented itself as the true voice of his artistic ambitions. His latest album ‘Freetown Sound’ represents the payoff to a slow burning journey that began with him reassessing his singer-songwriter in 2009 and beginning the process of reworking the less aggressively masculine forms of hip-hop and combining them with his pop writing sensibilities to create a woozy, unique style that can only be described as ‘Queer Street’. On second thoughts, that sounds far too much like a Bert and Ernie spin off. Let’s call it ‘Urban Camp’ instead.
When Hynes traded cardigans and comic couplets for snapbacks and sensitivity, many fans of his previous work (myself included) didn’t really know what to make of the change. The socially aware semi-autobiographical bent of Lightspeed Champion was there, but the braggadocio had disappeared. As his growing penchant for collaborations and guest spots would later prove, Blood Orange was more an extension of Hynes’ burgeoning career as a writer for other musicians than it was a ‘solo project’ in the traditional sense. Over the course of both ‘Coastal Grooves’ and ‘Cupid Deluxe’ he focused on using his project as both a hub of creative convergence for his circle of collaborators and a platform on which he could explore more complex social issues than his prior subject matter of growing up black, odd and sexually confused.
On ‘Freetown Sound’ these two ambitions are inextricably tied together, most prominently in the starring role Hynes gives over to the female voices on this album. His writing work with big hitting female artists such as Florence and the Machine and Carly Rae Jepsen (who guests on ‘Better Than Me’) has revealed a writer with a knack not only for a stadium-shattering hook, but also an understanding the female voice in more ways than one. A focus on the power and self-expression of women has always run through his output, and so it’s fitting that his new album begins with an impassioned poem about black feminism from Ashlee Haze that sets the tone for the rest of ‘Freetown Sound’.
Hynes elects to remain in the backseat for much of the album’s runtime, providing backdrops of loose beats and angelic harmonies over which the powerful voices of female collaborators both old and new are left free to take charge. Nelly Furtado sounds more relevant than she ever has on late album highlight ‘Hadron Collider’ while Debbie Harry takes the reins on ‘E.V.P.’ to add to the record’s prevalent ‘New York love-in’ vibe. Less established performers such as Kelsey Lu and Empress Of also pack their own punches on ‘Chance’ and ‘Best To You’ respectively, the latter of which sees the sensitive Hynes trying not to make a lone girl walking home feel threatened while also admiring her beauty on a track that nicely captures that crisis of conscience felt by all modern male feminists. It’s pretty much the antidote to ‘Blurred Lines’.
If Hynes had chosen to make the power of femininity the basis of this album it would be pretty much flawless. It’s themes of self-expression and acceptance also let it stand proudly as a product of the queer New York post-ballroom scene that Blood Orange helped to cultivate. But the single issue that undermines the cohesiveness of ‘Freetown Sound’ is Hynes’ decision to publicise it as an album about black identity, which it really isn’t. From its title (the capital of Sierra Leone where Hynes’ father was born) to the very light scattering of police brutality references on an otherwise straightforward love song ‘Hands Up’, this seems to be the one aspect of social progressivism that really falls flat on the album. Sampling a Black Lives Matter protest does not make you a Kanye, let alone a Kendrick, and the constant ‘I’ over ‘we’ individualism of Hynes’ lyrics, while perfect for the self-empowerment present in the politics of sexual identity, does not gel with the racial equality movement’s essential aspect of social unity.
This might be an incredibly unfair assessment, as the album is obviously sourced from Hynes’ own experience of finding his own voice and identity in what is still a white, straight man’s world, and his race is obviously a massive part of that. But if Hynes had truly wanted to create an album about black identity as opposed to his own identity, he would have included the powerful ‘Sandra’s Smile’ and focused on the matter across all 17 tracks. He would have made a record dedicated to togetherness rather than individuality and it would have been equally excellent. Instead it becomes an underdeveloped aspect of what is otherwise an expertly tailored and politically-charged work of pop.
Words: Josh Gray
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