In an Instagram post three weeks ago, Devonté Hynes, better known as Blood Orange, explicitly declared who his third record is for: “everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the [underappreciated]… it’s a clapback.” It’s for those who, like Hynes, find themselves at odds with the dominant culture. Freetown Sound is the first record by Hynes since a 2013 fire destroyed his New York City apartment, taking with it computers full of demos, his musical instruments, and his dog, Cupid, whose namesake was emblazoned across the cover of Hynes’ record Cupid Deluxe released just one month before. This new effort seems to be born out of the ashes of that loss.
His anger at society’s hegemonic structure provided him with the fuel to create an album that works to burn down oppression while celebrating his blackness. From soca to gospel to soul and funk, Hynes’ arrangements pay tribute to the many contributions black people have made to modern western music. Even the record opener, “By Ourselves” is an unabashed ode to black women. The whir of a helicopter’s propeller is joined by a choir of soulful voices, aiding Hynes as he softly sings, “They took and skinned my name / Try to raise the feeling.” Taking a leaf from Beyoncé featuring Warsan Shire, the impassioned voice of Atlanta poet Ashlee Haze ends the song. In just a short cut, Hynes lays out a strong radical message decrying misogynoir.
Throughout the record, it becomes clear that Hynes feels lost and struggles to find a place to call home, especially since losing his physical one. Hynes’ love-hate relationship with New York City and the wonders that accompany it are prevalent throughout. On the heartbreaking “Augustine” he laments the state of America, echoing Saint Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Questioning his decision to move to the states at all, Hynes cites police brutality against black people—and in particular the shooting of Trayvon Martin—as one of the main reasons he doesn’t feel at home. Over a crisp, simplistic beat with blurry synths, he sings with frailty, “Tell me, did you lose your son? / Tell me, did you lose your love? / Cry and burst my deafness, while Trayvon falls asleep.”
What keeps Hynes grounded is his sense of emotion, demonstrated in the seductively smooth funk undercurrents of “E.V.P.” (featuring Debbie Harry), evoking George McCrae’s stunted yet whisper-like vocals. In “feeling the comfort of sadness in a new set of surroundings,” the only thing that has any familiarity is his fundamental humanness. This conflict ultimately reaches its conclusion on “Desirée,” where he bluntly states, “I cannot stay in New York.” In celebrating one of Paris Is Burning’s breakout drag queens, Venus Xtravaganza, Hynes declares his love for the fringes of New York, but says it’s not enough for him to feel at home there.
Hynes’ search for who he is stresses the importance of the album’s title, Freetown Sound, named after his father’s hometown in Sierra Leone. This is where Hynes feels his heart most belongs. While his time in London and New York City have shaped Blood Orange’s sound, they aren’t the source. Hynes’ sense of self that listeners so adore comes from Freetown.