R&B innovator explores identity and refuses borders on a deep avant-pop mixtape.
Dev Hynes described his third LP under his Blood Orange moniker as something “like my version of [The Beastie Boys’] Paul’s Boutique.” It’s that and plenty more: Opening with a butter-smooth R&B chorale that segues into a poetry-slam jazz collage using Ashlee Haze’s incandescent “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem),” followed by lush Eighties-style synth-pop, Freetown Sound is one deep avant-pop mixtape, a masterpiece of composition, curation and choreography addressing present-day black art and experience while refusing limits at every turn.
Part memoir in the context of a global community (the title refers to Sierra Leone, where his family has roots), there’s nothing simple about the inescapable politics here – although to brand Freetown Sound merely a “political album” is reductive. “Love Ya” interpolates a joyous Eddie Grant deep cut alongside a Ta-Nehisi Coates reflection on costume as armor; the falsetto-laced “Hands Up” fronts like a bedroom slow jam until a #BlackLivesMatter chant erupts; “Chance” channels a dark-skinned voice “in a sold-out crowd” contemplating a blonde-braided girl in a “thug life” T-shirt. It’s all less polemic than fact-of-life.
Hynes seems naturally given to collaboration – with pop stars (Carly Rae Jepsen) filmmakers (Gia Coppola), even visual artists (Alex Da Corte) – and as auteur, he appears exacting in his commitment to fairness: Freetown Sound‘s credits calculate one arrangement as a “40%” contribution, one song as a “50/50 split,” and shouts out someone for providing the “third chord suggestion in hook.” His sharing impulse pays dividends. Like 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, this set lets women artists shine, some well-known (Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado), many up-and-coming, and their voices amplify, enhance and serve as proxy for Hynes’ own. Sampling biblical interpretations from KRS-One’s “Why Is That?,” “Chance” is a tag-team duet with like-minded soul rebel Kelsey Lu, who morphs on the segue into another sharp newbie, Lorely Rodriquez (aka: Empress Of) on “Best To You,” a sort of Kate Bush-Meets-Simple Minds jam with Steve Reich flourishes. “With Him,” a dream-like bit of fusion featuring Dutch goth-pop diva Bea1991, features a contrasting voice that testifies: “Black is/and black ain’t/Black is blue/Black is red,” continuing the lesson from there. You might assume one point to be that identity is many things. Dev Hynes’ work – populist, experimental, healing, agitating, straightforward, multi-layered – demonstrates this unfailingly. Prince’s radical pop spirit lives on in many artists. But none are channeling it more fully, or artfully.