Title: Freetown Sound
Artist: Blood Orange
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release Date: June 28, 2016
Perhaps as well known for its surprise release as for its actual music, the latest release by Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange (he has formerly recorded as Lightspeed Champion and as a member of the band Test Icicles) represents the work of an artist who is politically conscious and musically eclectic. Filtering social issues through a personal lens on his third album under this name, Blood Orange delivers one of the most compelling, socially-grounded artistic statements of the year.
On first blush, Freetown Sound may appear to simply be a set of solid contemporary R&B that hearkens to the past. Blood Orange has incorporated the synthesizers, drum machines, and lush textures of ’80s pop, and Hynes channels both Prince (“E.V.P.”) and Michael Jackson (“But You”) on this release—in fact, upon a close examination of the album’s cover, there is a poster of Jackson hanging on the wall. However, to simply assert that Blood Orange is trading in retro pop would be to largely miss the point of this record. The sprawling 17 tracks (which still manage to somehow clock in at under an hour) address a variety of timely issues, including a spoken word tribute that doubles as a feminist reading of Missy Elliott by poet Ashlee Haze (“By Ourselves”), to tracks that directly address systemic racism, from “Hands Up”— a song that directly references the protests after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police—to a sample from Ta-Nehisi Coates describing the burden of growing up a Black boy, having to carefully consider each detail of his daily wardrobe on “Love Ya.” The inclusion of Coates is apt, as Freetown Sound is a document as simultaneously personal and compelling (while far less explicit about what the problems are or what should be done about them) as Coates’s landmark book, Between the World and Me. The sense of intimacy on this record is not just one that is intimately connected to timely issues, however. Tracks like “St. Augustine” have a touch of spirituality, hinting at something much more private. While some might criticize much of Freetown Sound for its lack of specificity, it may be useful to think of these songs as somewhat of a Rorschach test for listeners, much like the titular saint’s Confessions.
While several months remain before critics begin to compile their lists of best releases of the year, Freetown Sound is undoubtedly a contender. From the alternately stark and lush textures Hynes employs to his knack for making big social personal, this release deserves a listen and is likely worth the hype.
Reviewed by Matthew Alley