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Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound: An MTV News Roundtable

Our writers and critics on an album full of bohemian vibes and fleeting moments of grace

By Eric Torres, Doreen St. Félix, Hazel Cills, David Turner, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Ira Madison III, Sasha Geffen, and Charles Aaron

Torres: Listening to Freetown Sound at this point in the year feels like a balm for all of the horrible shit going on in America — and everywhere, really. There’s so much breadth of sound and content, but it’s all laser-focused on experiences of otherness — blackness, queerness, never feeling good enough — with a company of women leading the way into the light. There’s still plenty of Hynes’s '80s-nodding idiosyncrasies, but I feel like there’s a lot more packed into this album beyond that. I hear Sade, Arthur Russell, Blondie (Debbie Harry’s awesome guest appearance on "E.V.P." helps). I love that he’s recruited new talent here, too: Empress Of continues to casually deliver some of the best vocals I’ve ever heard on "Best to You," Kelsey Lu brings a stunning vulnerability to "Chance," and Carly Rae Jepsen is excellent as usual on the low-key devastating "Better Than Me." But I think my favorite song right now is "Desirée," the slinky midpoint of the album that’s threaded through with a sample of legendary trans performer Venus Xtravaganza, who was immortalized in Paris Is Burning — an essential text for Hynes (as it should be for everyone). Hynes is a clear acolyte of New York City and its history of creatives, but here it feels like he’s reaching out beyond the city to everyone, telling us that he sees us, that we’re welcome here, that none of us are alone in all the insanity. In the words of Le1f, "it’s Dev Hynes all summa 16."

St. Félix: This album says that bohemianism has a home in this millennium. Anyone who even casually follows Dev Hynes (say, on his Instagram) knows he's a devoted New Yorker, more curious about the city's characters than most natives are. Watching him grow attached to New York like a barnacle, link up with originals like Junglepussy, I had a feeling the next Blood Orange project would be fashioned after one canon of New York style. On Freetown Sound, the style is hugely literary — earnest beatnik philosophy upgraded for a digital age. The video for "Augustine" begins with a montage of the black theory and literature that have motivated Blood Orange politically for the last few years. The New York intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates even makes an appearance.

Cills: Freetown Sound is Hynes’s strongest work to date because of that diversity of textures and voices — the literature and the film clips, but also just what it means to collect these voices under the Blood Orange umbrella. I had a chance to see one of Dev Hynes's Apollo Theater "Blood Orange and Friends" shows last year, at which he brought out many of his collaborators — Solange, Caroline Polachek, Nelly Furtado — with dance troupes and an extensive backing band. I realized that while Dev Hynes is often compared to Prince because of his voice, his '80s pastiche, and his lively stage presence as a bandleader, it's ultimately his affinity for collaboration that connects him the most to the late rock star. Hynes is a true visionary in music right now, with such a distinctive sound that it’s even hard to listen to his songs for Sky Ferreira or Carly Rae Jepsen and not immediately hear them in his voice. And he continues this collaboration on Freetown Sound, opening with a monologue from poet Ashlee Haze, pulling in Zuri Marley, Empress Of, Debbie Harry — I mean, Angela Davis! The more we hear from Blood Orange, the less it seems to be a stage name or alias for Hynes, and rather an ever-expanding creative project. You get the sense he’s trying to not just make music but map cultural soundscapes, explore the ways white voices and black voices and queer voices mingle and tangle in American urban spaces. To hear how big this project is, how many ideas and voices are a part of the Blood Orange universe, is really exciting.

Geffen: "Curious" is the best word I can think of to describe what Hynes is doing with this record. He floats from block to block, picking up snippets of speech and activity, never trying to cram what he finds into a single unifying narrative but just letting it breathe as the complex and occasionally contradictory ecosystem that it is. His patience lends this album a delicateness that I’ve never heard from him before: on Cupid Deluxe, he aimed more directly at our pleasure centers, mapping pop hooks right onto the areas where we’d expect them. Freetown Sound is less fun and far richer, more willing to entertain trauma and disappointment as worthwhile emotional states right alongside excitement and community and joy.

Aaron: It seems like Dev Hynes’s goal is to imagine a living, hopeful-yet-embattled, local-yet-international bohemia in today’s New York City, which is perhaps more of a challenge than ever before, what with all the $$$$$ and ongoing socioeconomic segregation and destruction of history, etc. And I agree with Sasha, the result is a curious record. It felt incomplete on my first few listens, but over time, that’s become an odd strength. Considering Hynes’s ambitions, the music needs to be searching and open-ended and poignant and a little bit lost. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s a savvy traveler, a soft-spoken flâneur who sounds like he’s always passing through the genres and styles and histories that are reflected in his music, skillfully exploring, never quite sure. Maybe that’ll keep me from ever totally warming up to Freetown Sound, I don’t know. But it feels honest.

On the most basic level, the songs/melodies/choruses on Freetown Sound aren’t especially direct or wholly satisfying — except maybe with the soulful sway of "Hadron Collider" (featuring Nelly Furtado). Instead, they tease and wind down side paths and play around with resolution, usually with a deep sigh. As an Anglo-African plopped down in America’s melted pot of race/class/genre/style, Hynes is forever reaching for an identity, and his fluency has grown over his multitude of projects. He’s no longer just an '80s-pop collagist in indie-rock fringe. The music here has a remarkable, wide-ranging ease, which allows Hynes to imply his greater points — that he’s not just writing songs, he’s trying to connect histories and people and create spaces where others can do the same. But is he being too subtle or vague? He foregrounds women and queer people of color, while keeping himself at a watchful distance; he’s a ghostly presence. Maybe that’s his conflicted feelings about being a frontman rather than a behind-the-scenes figure. I’m sympathetic to his cause, so I’m not inclined to judge Freetown Sound based on whether its hooks stick or Hynes emotes enough or if it has a "breakout" song or achieves commercial success. I hope it’s fairly popular, because I want to enjoy the music in a variety of contexts with different people. So far, it’s left me wanting to listen more and think more and imagine more.

Turner: Context really is everything. In the short life of this album, I’ve heard it in public twice, and both times the music hit my ears to warm indifference. White people appeared to be gleefully taking in Hynes’s world; I sat back thinking about how much my own enjoyment of his work peaked somewhere between Sky Ferreira’s "Everything Is Embarrassing" and his 2013 single "Chamakay." My black indifference — half-snark, three-fourths honest — quickly tempered their earnest, pure enjoyment. That’s not a conflict, necessarily, just a crossing of signals. What does it mean if Hynes’s inclusive blackness might not even touch those who wear such markers? That feeling of awkward distance has built for me as I've sat with this record. I’ve only gravitated to Empress Of’s appearance on "Best to You," a rare moment that reveals itself in a full song, not a sketch. Otherwise, the poems and fragments that make up this album's larger whole have me falling through the seams.

Willis-Abdurraqib: I really find value in art that removes me from one world and places me in another. Not in a generic sense, either. I mean something that really builds a landscape and a narrative to match that landscape, and invites a listener/reader/watcher to join. The album has its uneven moments, sure. But it feels intentionally uneven, in tone and musical shifts. It’s a smart album, I think. Not just in the sense of low-hanging fruit for the performers of woke, though there is some of that. But it’s a challenging album to consume and enjoy. Hynes's primary theme here, I think, is what it is to be alone, othered, or not enough. Some of the work is devastating, but cleaned up well. There's that signature Dev Hynes gloss over tracks like "Better Than Me" and "Best to You." I am reminded, again, that loneliness isn’t all bad. Being on the outside doesn’t always mean being empty.

Madison III: I've always loved Dev's aesthetic, and that slinky R&B loneliness is exactly why. Like his cover of Janet Jackson's "He Doesn't Know I'm Alive" with Solange, or "Losing You," or Carly Rae Jepsen's "All That." It's like a heartache spray of Afro sheen over a giddy pop track. But until this album, I'd always loved his production more, the tunes he made for songbird muses. Freetown Sound feels vital in a way that his own work has never sounded to me before. Maybe it's the amalgamation of so many influences, so many muses all in one place. But he's made that throwback sound current, and laid down a piece of art that necessitates re-listening. The echoes of various voices, particularly those of women, resonate with me. In a year full of big sounds and gospel records from Beyoncé, Kanye, and Chance, this album is a reminder that you can also look inward for therapy. It doesn't have to be a shout to the heavens for freedom. Sometimes you just need to be alone in the dark for a bit.


VMAs 2017