- by Justin Pearson Rating:9 Release Date:2016-07-01 Label:
Devonte Hynes tackles identity on Freetown Sound, his third and best album as Blood Orange. It's an identity explored within the confines of the city with its noise and chaos providing a fitting din to the unsettled, stream-of-consciousness layout of the record. Informed by history, religion, race, sexuality and gender, these shaping forces culminate in a grand statement of one's surroundings and where their place is among the larger pieces. In the press from the record label for the album Hynes is quoted as saying: "My album is for everyone told they're not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated. It's a clap back."
In various interviews leading up to the release, he's referred to it as the most relatable thing he's done: "It’s like my version of Paul’s Boutique. It kind of plays like a long mix tape." While it's clearly both a political and personal statement, it swiftly becomes evident that it leans more heavily toward the latter with its powerful surge of emotion. The smoothness of the melodies take on new meaning in the context of the lyrics and act as a salve to soften the wound brought on by the anger and bitterness inherent in its message. Epic in scope, but intimate in feel, these are strong, catchy, and well-crafted songs. The silky smooth pop/r&b and 80's-leaning saxophone solos on 2013's Cupid Deluxe are once again found here, but the effect is one of enhancement.
Tucked away beneath the sheer musicality of the album, its impact comes off stronger upon each listen, heightened even more once the meanings reveal themselves through the passionate musings of each thought/character/story - intermittent snippets of anger, frustration, resignation and personal reflection dot the soundscape in the form of various audio clips. These are more than just samples, though. They're an outpouring of voices to remind you of the beating heart that lies at its center.
'By Ourselves' gets at the root of the discontent with Ashlee Haze performing her impassioned poem addressing the need for accurate representation in the media: "...I will tell you that right now there are a million black girls waiting to see someone who looks like them." The incredible 'Augustine' has a breezy, soaring chorus, but its marked by the melancholic quandary of a supposedly accepting Christianity that practices homophobia. Just as equally relevant and in support of the downtrodden, 'Desiree' deals with transgender issues and the oppression/expectation of women in general.
The theme of self-realization shows up on a few tracks, whether individually or within a relationship. Determined, frantic percussion urges the protagonist's recovery from insecurity on 'Best to You': "I can be the only one/ I can be the best to you." The funky 'E.V.P.' furthers this idea: "Choosing what you live for/ It's never what you make your life/ How could you know if you're squandering your passion for another?"
This perception of one's flaws also bleeds into a love life, or lack thereof, and nowhere is this sad ache more pronounced than on the utterly gorgeous, shivering euphoria of 'Hadron Collider'. Guest vocalist Nelly Furtado reaches for the stars (or broken particles as the title would allude to) with angelic sadness: "We should be dancing with the angels/ A thousand halos in the sky/ But we're far from heaven." Summing up the theme of not being good enough is 'Better Than Me'. The subjugation of one's worthiness in favor of pleasing another sounds urgent here, but not completely helpless: "Watch his love when hate comes first/ But I know he's better than me/ Wait your turn and change your ways/ But I know he's better than me."
'But You' and 'Hands Up' both deal with stereotypes and how they affect daily city life, whether crossing the street or simply going to bed at night. On the former, the refrain "You are special in your own way" comes off without sounding corny, but rather uttered by someone who genuinely understands the weight of the sentiment while adhering to norms and conventions placed on one by peers and society at large. On the latter, lines like "Keep your hood off when you're walking" and "Are you sleeping with the lights on baby?" paint a similar picture of fear affecting one's psyche in the face of misperceptions.
For all its 17-track length, the album never feels overlong. The songs work together as floating threads within the larger whole of its fractured soul, weaving in and out to create a quilt stiched together with unique personal experiences to warm the chill of alienation. On an album that side steps imitation and repetition while still managing to pay homage to past sounds, there's hardly a misstep in the footwork that dances all over it with a toe-tapping ease.
Hynes has fully honed his sound as Blood Orange, and Freetown Sound is a definitive representation of confindence from a major talent. It's the sound of defiance filtered through a kaleidoscopic lens whose shards of feeling color a pure cry born from the ugliness and pain of a reflected, "less than" perceived self. Ultimately, it's bursting with love for the "other", or anyone who doesn't fit a specific mold. It should resonate with anyone who's ever had to prove themselves, as it's a certificate of validation for anyone who's ever needed it.