FREETOWN SOUND by Blood Orange
Genre: Alternative R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Augustine,” “E.V.P.,” “Hands Up”
Blood Orange, the solo project of British musician Dev Hynes, has become a consistent source of quality synthpop production and songwriting, with two prior albums under his belt as well as a steadily expanding portfolio of collaborations as a producer with other artists including Solange, FKA Twigs, and Carly Rae Jepsen (who appears on this album). Hynes is one of the most distinctive sounding pop musicians working today, and certainly one of the most talented — and on FREETOWN SOUND, we see him trying to step his game up even further by taking on the task of making an intensely personal and political album.
The theme of identity is a major driving force behind this album, and you’ll find more than a few pieces and interviews on how Hynes, who is black and identifies as queer, shaped the lyrical content of this album by using a combination of personal narratives and politics to explore how identity relates to individual experience. In that sense, it’s more LEMONADE than TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY, and it is unique from those two in that it incorporates a queer lens that gives it a voice that is similar to, but highly distinct from, the voices of other like-minded musicians. Though other writers who are more qualified to evaluate FREETOWN SOUND’s effectiveness in this pursuit, as well as Hynes himself, should be left to dissect the lyrics, Hynes’s level of thematic ambition is obvious to any listener. Hynes doesn’t convey these themes, particularly the ones more oriented towards him as an individual, as clearly as artists like Beyonce or Kendrick Lamar have been able to in their recent work — though, in all fairness, this could be partially because he is not as visible a public figure as those aforementioned, and we just aren’t as familiar with Dev Hynes as a person. Regardless, FREETOWN SOUND’s punches don’t land as consistently as they could.
Even if the album can be uneven, its bright spots are extremely bright, a sign that Hynes has the potential to make something truly incredible in the future. Lead single “Augustine,” centered around a rudimentary drum machine beat, tastefully layered guitar and keys, and haunting vocals, is an outstanding song in its own right. It is a near-perfect way to set the table for the rest of the album, as it establishes its lyrical and musical themes immediately. It’s forlorn and danceable simultaneously, and, as a single, is one of the outstanding songs released this year.
“E.V.P.,” another outstanding number, is an uptempo synth-funk tune that combines elements reminiscent of new jack swing, Prince, and Talking Heads, utilizing wobbly bass, synthesizer stabs, and a spectacular drum solo that evokes the kind of feeling that could only compare to hearing an action hero spit out a particularly witty one-liner. Adding more nuance to the track are Hynes’s self-doubting lyrics, which give “E.V.P.” a spectacular tension that makes it a great example of the ways that FREETOWN SOUND works as a record.
Hynes is at his best when exploring the tension between the personal and political themes and the darkly danceable musical compositions he creates. Another song that works well in this sense is “Hands Up,” which combines lyrics addressing police brutality with some of the most upbeat music found on the album while ending on a somber note thanks to a timely use of the popular “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan made popular by protesters of police brutality in Ferguson.
Not everything on this album is completely straight-faced serious and politically driven, however — “But You” is a shamelessly schlocky 80s pop ballad about self-affirmation and living one’s truth, and the refrain of “you are special in your own way” is joyful in its sincerity and aided by Hynes’s best vocal performance on the album.
Though Hynes’s reputation as a deft producer of alternative-skewing synthpop should remain very much intact, as the orchestrations throughout the album are on par with some of his best work, FREETOWN SOUND is hurt by a lack of consistency in quality, and an occasional lack of thematic cohesion. It seems to run out of steam around two-thirds of the way through, and is hurt by Hynes’s shortcomings as a performer, as most of his vocal performances fail to match the songs’ scope and the album is more consistently good when he defers to other performers. However, there’s some really, truly interesting and mindful work on FREETOWN SOUND, and the individual highlights make up for the occasional shortcomings.