What a fucking crazy and painful year 2016 has been so far. In the wake of the mass shootings in Orlando, footage of police violence, and post-Brexit racist attacks, producer and multi instrumentalist Dev Hynes released his third album as Blood Orange, announcing it with a handwritten note on Instagram: “My album is for those who are told they are not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the unappreciated, it’s a clapback.”
The first single from the album, “Augustine”, serves as the prism through which the album’s historical, personal, and political themes are refracted. The opening lines—My father was a young man, my mother off the boat / My eyes were fresh at 21, bruised but still afloat—trace his mother’s journey from Guyana and his father’s journey from Freetown, Sierra Leone and draw them in parallel with his migration from London to New York. In the chorus he filters the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo through a queer lens—Skin on his skin / A warmth that I can feel with him—as a way of reconciling the faith that Augustine spread to Africa down through his parents’ with his queerness.
The accompanying music video with its heavy grain and muted colours calls to mind the New York of the late 80s and early 90s. It features Hynes making music in his apartment, surrounded by writings on queer black studies, on Trayvon Martin, on St. Augustine. He wears a yellow cap adorned with the Guyanese flag and dances in front of a painting of the Sierra Leone flag. Surrounded by a bevy of diverse artists he dances freely in parks and on rooftops. It feels like an invocation of the spirit of the era of Marlon Riggs, Octavia St. Laurent, and Essex Hemphill.
This nostalgic bohemian spirit carries through the sound of the album. Vocally, Hynes channels Prince and Michael Jackson without coming across as imitative. Tracks are frequently intercut with audio snippets expressing varied experiences of queerness and blackness and textured with street recordings from New York. A quote from Marlon Riggs’ documentary Black Is… Black Ain’t speaks to delineating boundaries of black identity: Black is and black ain’t / Black is blue, black is red / Black is tan (Black will get ya) / Black is light (And black will leave you alone).
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As an artist and producer Hynes collaborates almost exclusively with women, noting that there’s “a particular power that women can put across that men just can’t.” Demonstrated in the album, the strongest songs here are collaborations with women. Opening track “By Ourselves” features slam poet Ashlee Haze fiercely championing the importance of seeing Missy Elliott perform and the importance of representation. Nelly Furtado duets on the stunning ballad “Hadron Collider” which recalls 2006 banger “Say It Right”, and Debbie Harry brings fire to the new wave funk of “E.V.P”.
On the standout, “Best To You”, Honduran-American singer Empress Of, who released her outstanding self-produced debut album Me last year, takes the lead. Her voice soars over cello, marimba, and tropical dance percussion. Posing as an unrequited love song, the lyrics speak to subsuming self-identity to please another and the pain of hiding otherness. I feel my bones crack in your arms / And I can’t be the girl you want but I can be the thing you throw away—she repeats the last two words as the song reaches its euphoric climax. It’s a thrilling moment, finding a sense of strength and pride through the pain of being marginalised and minimised.
While drawing inspiration from the past, this is an album that is also firmly rooted in the present. Identity, belonging, liberation—as an exploration of these themes Freetown Sound is coloured by the socio-political context of our times. The movement Black Lives Matter and the larger issue of what it means to be black or other in a world that violently attacks otherness is woven into the fabric of the album—a dissertation on identity. It’s generous, engaging music that champions individuality and self expression even when it’s dangerous to do so. Get it.