"Dear Missy, I did not grow up to be you but I did grow to be me and be in love with who this woman is," Ashlee Haze says, opening Dev Hynes' third album as Blood Orange, Freetown Sound. It's sampled from her Missy Elliot-lauding poem For Colored Girls and while, as a man, it doesn't apply to Hynes directly is packages it couples the albums goals, themes and spirit in one tightly packed poem. Freetown Sound is Hynes' most racially, politically and personally inspired effort to date, one that gives strength to the minorities and reminds us how important a force music can be in giving a voice and a confidence to those that feel they're often left unspoken for.
Freetown Sound, named after the capital of Sierra Leone and the birth place of Hynes' father, plays out like a personal mixtape mapping the most important notions swirling through his head right now. Since the release of his last record Cupid Deluxe, he's become both a political voice amidst overwhelming cases of police brutality and a visionary in the pop genre producing for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Carly Rae Jepsen and the original Sugababes. Pop has flirted with politics in the past but it's never been a strong a voice as hip-hop. Hynes, however, has found a way to marry this juxtaposition that's as politically potent as Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly and as melodically delectable as Jepsen's E.MO.TION.
At 17 tracks, the album plays out much like a personal mixtape. Full songs are interwoven with sample and audio snippets with each song flowing effortlessly onto the other. While it addresses universal emotions and problems, it's very much Hynes' own personal world that's coming to light. "My father was a young man/My mother off the the boat/My eyes were fresh at 21," he sings on Augustine atop thumping bass and gentle piano coos. In the same song he makes reference to Nontetha, a South African prophet from the early 20th-century who was jailed and later died in isolation after fighting for unity in her community. As much as his lyrics reflect his own personal situations or history, he consistently delves further into history to better understand and celebrate his roots.
"No one really cares what thug life means," he sings on Chance going back and forth with Kelsey Lu. It's a statement about cultural appropriation, surrounded by observations Lu and Hynes make in a packed crowd. That's immediately followed by Empress Of's pristine vocals on Best To You which depicts craving attention within a relationship. Thematically, this record doesn't move like a timelines. Instead, we flick from the personal to the political and social. That said, by the time you reach the end of the record, you feel as if you've pieced together Hynes' tapestry better than ever. Best To You is an early highlight with Hynes once again in producer mood proving just how brilliant he is at working with female voices and carving out the appropriate spaces for them to shine in.
Female voices are the only features used on Freetown Sound. Hynes isn't using them because it's handy to have a big-name on the record for promotional purposes, he does it because they add an element to it that he simply can't. Each of them contribute something different too. Blondie's Debbie Harry hypntosies on E.V.P. while Nelly Furtado brings a beautiful fragility to Hadron Collider. On the latter, Hynes sings softly in the background with the consistent use of "we" making it feel like a duet even though it's led by Furtado vocally. On Better Than Me, we hear Jepsen run alongside Hynes, singing about jealousy and in a broader sense the under appreciated. You can tell Jepsen and Hynes are approaching the subject matter from different places but that's the point. The different perspectives of this record introduce us not only to Hynes but his surrounding world and the people that are a part of it.
Speaking of his surrounding world, despite Freetown Sound giving a nod to the Sierra Leone capital, it's a record planted in New York. Hynes moved to New York nine years ago from the UK and the way he views the city with vigour. It's not the same sort of appreciation that somebody who had been living there their entire lives would have. It's romanticised to an extent with nostalgia for the NYC music scenes of the '80s and '90s and love for its current physical spaces. With Him open with a sample of a saxophonist and opera singer in Central Park before he sings, "You chose to fade away with me/I chose to try and let you in," reflecting on friends he's lost to heroine in the past few years. While the experiences he sings about may not always directly be related to living in New York, he beautifully interweaves them with nods to the city, perhaps because that's been his physical base throughout all this.
Hynes doesn't pretend to have all the answers on Freetown Sound but his astute, genuine and passionate observations make this record comforting to anybody who feels they don't completely fit in a certain box. Hands Up is a protest song about police brutality but instead of delivering it with a punk-based anger, he approaches it gently, as if he's gently comforting the victim rather than shouting at the perpetrator. "Are you okay? What's in your way?" he sings over one of the most heart-breaking melodies of the whole record. He asks many questions on the album, always involving others in the conversation and/or simply comforting the subject of his stories.. After all, he ends the entire album with the question, "does it just feel better numb?"
Freetown Sound is Hynes' best album to date. It's beautifully pieced together and while it's not always completely coherent, part of what makes it so interesting is the way you can jump through Hyne's head and his many thoughts. While it may not answer many questions it reminds minorities that there's always someone out there with a similar, worthwhile story to tell. "I will tell you that on the days I don’t feel pretty/I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me," Haze says on the album's opener and perhaps this album will provide some with a similar comfort as Missy did.