Blood Orange’s ‘Freetown Sound’ Sings Protest Over Airy Pop


When the world feels like it’s on fire, one of my favorite forms of self-care is music collecting. Last weekend I walked into the Brooklyn Flea, in search of 45s, feeling burdened, with thoughts of American gun violence, police brutality, and the worth of black life forming a potent cocktail in the back of my mind. But they drifted to front and center when I spotted a couple of kids playing with an antique toy gun. The white kid picked up the gun and asked his black friend, “Hey, what about this?” to which the black kid responded, “My dad told me not to play with those.” It was a jolting reminder that being a carefree black boy is too often secondary to being a careful one.

The music video for “Augustine,” a track from Dev Hynes’s new Blood Orange album, Freetown Sound, beautifully expresses this state of flux: It’s full of those signature dance moves — somewhere between voguing and body rolling, pauses and poses incorporated with electric grace — that have anointed Hynes as a carefree black boy unencumbered by onlooker expectations. But the song’s lyrics (“Our heads have hit the pavement many times before/You stroke his face to soothe him while knowing there’s more”), sung over an airy pop melody, speak to the wariness undergirding those moves. It’s such juxtaposition that has made Freetown Sound, almost immediately, a landmark record for troubling times.

The album (its title an homage to Hynes’s father’s hometown in Sierra Leone) is unapologetically black, feminist, celebratory, angry, and sullen — and it explores themes of personal oppression with a pop sensibility that doesn’t undermine its political messaging or introspection.

“E.V.P.” is a gleaming instance of this: Its self-reflection is embedded in one of the most danceable grooves on the record. Hynes snarls lines like “scars remain from running away and hiding where you’re from,” and featured guest Debbie Harry’s wispy voice acts as an inner monologue, floating back the question, “Will I ever be enough?” It’s a tune that finds Hynes pondering the minutiae of his character while embracing his flaws along the way.

Hynes takes every opportunity to examine both historical and contemporary blackness. “Juicy 1–4” is a prayer for mercy (“Oh Mary our Lady Africa/Please don’t leave them alone”) that asserts self-worth in the face of the slave trade — that “black is gold.” Meanwhile, the overtly titled “Hands Up” fast-forwards to the present day: The charged chorus warns, “Keep your hood off when you’re walking” because “sure enough they’re gonna take your body”; the track ends with live audio of protesters chanting, “Don’t shoot!”

He’s crafted odes to strong women wherever possible, too: Album opener “By Ourselves” features poet Ashlee Haze delivering a powerful spoken-word tribute to Missy Elliott, while “Desiree,” with its warbled keyboard melody, gives voice to murdered trans performer Venus Xtravaganza through samples of her interview from the Nineties documentary Paris Is Burning.

As Blood Orange, Hynes doesn’t have a perfect voice — he’s still finding it. The earlier years he spent performing and recording as Lightspeed Champion damaged his vocal cords to the point of necessitating surgical repair, which has changed his delivery. In the moments where his voice lacks the strength to carry the note, his message still rings true. At other times, a host of features, including Nelly Furtado, Carly Rae Jepsen, Zuri Marley, and Ava Raiin, help to carry the load.

In a recent Pitchfork interview Hynes says that Freetown Sound “kinda plays like a long mixtape,” comparing its audio-collage feel to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It’s a bit of context that makes this spirited collection of songs even more enjoyable. You know that neighborhood-y feeling of bumping into an old friend who has to take a call mid-conversation, when a car pulls up playing your jam to fill in the silence? That’s Freetown Sound.

Perhaps that’s why some of the record’s most brilliant moments come from musical interludes rather than full-fledged tracks — like “Love Ya,” a germ of a song that projects a half-formed beauty, or the refrain from “Chance,” which resurfaces several times throughout the album. Packed with samples, including KRS-One, De La Soul, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the album moves with the swiftness of a Dilla beat tape, switching from jagged to ethereal at a moment’s notice.

This erratic fluidity is also reminiscent of Hynes’s dancing. I’m not sure of the moment that we collectively took notice of his moves, but they’re remarkable, the kind of thing that sticks with you — like Thom Yorke’s spasms or Mary J. Blige’s uncanny timing. With Freetown Sound, we see Hynes tangling with his burdens — physically, viscerally. In doing so, he reminds us that dancing itself is a form of pure, local protest, a way of claiming your body and the amount of space you need for it. It’s a complete declaration of pride and love for yourself in a world that tells you that you aren’t and will never be enough. And it’s a rare time when black boys and girls are allowed to be carefree.

Dev Hynes performs as Blood Orange at Panorama Festival on July 23.