Freetown Sound, the third studio album released under Dev Hynes' act Blood Orange, is being hailed as an "album of the times," which is to say an album of pathos. "It's what's going on. What else could I do?" asked Hynes in a June Apple Beats 1 interview, on the morning of the project's surprise early release.
If Freetown Sound really does reflect the times, it reflects an atmosphere in which celebration mixes with mourning, in which identities blossom and bleed. They bled in Orlando last month, they bled in Baton Rouge and Minnesota this week, and they have bled on the streets of New York, the intricate habitat for Freetown Sound.
Soul, jazz and eighties R&B constitute the album's foundation. Haunting melodies drift through a highly textured atmosphere from one track to the next, hypnotizing listeners in one moment and pulling them back to dance or sing along in the next. Jubilant beats quickly yield to lingering saxophones and then to somber human voices. These sounds swirl together to create a blurred, emotional and wholly transfixing fabric—the Blood Orange sound.
Hynes, English, mined the sounds of his adoptive New York for the album, sprinkling his own recorded "ordinary street sounds" with samples from poets, intellectuals and musicians. The album is less ebullient than its predecessor Cupid Deluxe. It is tighter in its construction around core themes—black, queer, immigrant, past—with Hynes as its guide but not necessarily as its star. Sounds are the real force here, with the album built around not only Hynes' voice but the voices and rhythms of the world he encounters and observes.
Profiles of Hynes depict a person always in motion, whether on the soccer field, or on walks through the city, or in the dance studio. Freetown Sound moves, expanding and contracting. Listening to Freetown Sound is like walking through the city, headphones in, daydreaming while discovering new sights and sounds around each corner. Some are joyful, some are sad, some are frightening, some are thoughtful. The album, taken as a whole, moves undeniably forward, with sounds that are unequivocally now: nostalgic at times, stripped down at others, lush yet minimal.
Freetown Sound defies categorization, described as "straight hip hop, straight jazz," by Hynes himself. Kaleidoscopic in its execution, it operates on the level of history (sampling the book of Genesis alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates) while also on the intimate, cacophonous level of the streets. It is many things at once: raucous yet melodic, jarring yet soothing, disorienting yet centered. Listeners may recall Paul's Boutique, the Beastie Boys' sprawling New York cousin, when listening.
They should also recall "Sandra's Smile," Hynes' tribute to Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas in 2015. The sadness and reverence of "Sandra's Smile" flows freely through Freetown Sound. In "Hands Up," Hynes laments that "sure enough they're gonna take your body" before merging into a sample from a Black Lives Matter protest. These are works of protest and survival. Freetown Sound is an album of the times because it is crystallized around the black body enduring under siege.
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