"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 CLAPBACK"
The above sentence, its phrases running together with hurried urgency, was posted in handwritten form on Dev Hynes' Instagram not long before the release of Freetown Sound. The new record is the third album from Hynes' Blood Orange project, and its crowded collage of voices is a bold step forward into decidedly uncommercial but artistically enriching territory.
The signature Blood Orange sound, marked by gauzy synthesisers and popping funk rhythms, is here augmented by finely filigreed jazz textures and a host of voices (both speaking and singing) that create a thrillingly cluttered and disorienting sound that has an ambience of a busy street corner. The album was named for Freetown, where Hynes' Sierra Leonean father grew up, and gives a voice to people who are so often voiceless - immigrants, misfits, people of colour, and sexual minorities.
After an intro in which poet Ashlee Haze speaks passionately of her identification with hip-hop legend Missy Elliott as a strong and beautiful black woman, "Augustine" directly addresses the displacement as dis-ease of Hynes' immigrant background; "My father was a young man / My mother off the boat," he states in the song's first lines. The luminous and optimistic track is haunted by the ghost of Michael Jackson, with Hynes channelling his otherworldly sweetness, and the religious allusion of the title imbues the track with a certain subversive push.
Hynes also often channels Prince, not least through his willingness to concede the spotlight to a host of collaborators. Early highlight "Best to You" features Empress Of navigating one of the album's most solid grooves, and not long after the honeyed voice of Blondie's Debbie Harry is laced through the sleek and strangely timeless funk of "E.V.P." Throughout this album, Blood Orange doesn't feel like the project of one man, but a kind of communal, revolving door space of expression.
The album, which flows together as a seamless suite, has many small moments that aren't fully fledged songs, but still make a brilliant and lasting impression. A brief appearance by Zuri Marley (granddaughter of Bob Marley) on "Love Ya," is one of the record's most strikingly beautiful and crystalline moments, and Kelsey Lu's hard-edged voice anchors the fractured sketch "Chance." Unidentifiable spoken samples that discuss identity, belonging and self-worth in achingly personal terms also float in and out of the mix, creating a panoramic view of diverse lives all criss-crossing and interacting.
The ingenious structure of the record also serves to uplift Hynes' often simple and direct lyrics. The chorus of the sparkling "But You," which repeats "You are special in your own way," reads as a platitude on paper, but with Hynes' breathy delivery and voluptuous production, it rings as an important affirmation. Later on, Hynes duets with Nelly Furtado on "Hadron Collider," which takes flowery, almost naïve lyrics and creates out of them an intimate and very special two-person gospel.
But Freetown Sound is not a utopia. The melancholic "Desirée" begins with a spoken sample of murdered trans icon Venus Xtravaganza (who was featuring in the groundbreaking film Paris is Burning), and its determinedly rolling bass segues into the nervous "Hands Up," which ripples with fear at the institutionalised brutalisation of minorities, which Hynes also explored last year in the standalone single "Sandra's Smile." By contrasting fear and tension with hope and love, Freetown Sound becomes an engaging, street-level few of the lives lived by the lost and disenfranchised.
Freetown Sound is the point at which the remarkable vision of Blood Orange has solidified into something wholly original and profoundly important. It synthesises Dev Hynes' many influences - pop, funk, hip-hop, jazz - into a remarkable whole without ever really sounding like any other artist, and creates a fragmented narrative just as far-reaching. The watery acoustic ambience of "Better Numb" brings the album to a cliffhanger ending, with a barrage of orphaned radio transmissions signalling the boundlessness of stories still waiting to be told.
Freetown Sound is out now on digital formats, with a physical CD and vinyl release to follow on Friday August 19th.