Dev Hynes just released his new album, Freetown Sound, two days ahead of schedule. Freetown Sound is a follow-up to 2013’s critical darling Cupid Deluxe, and it’s intended, Hynes told V Magazine back in April, to “address the way Christianity was brought to West Africa, and the way black households held on very tightly to [that] because it was this beacon of hope.” Because it’s a Blood Orange album, all of that generational strife is laid over some ‘80s-sounding, tinkling synth beats.
Even if you haven’t heard of Hynes, you’ve probably heard the first single off Cupid Deluxe while deciding whether to kiss a stranger at a basement party. His music has become increasingly gorgeous, and increasingly political, culminating in his song for Sandra Bland, which he released last year. In contrast, “You’re Not Good Enough”, the steamy single off Cupid Deluxe was released with a tongue in cheek Gia Coppola dance video made to look like a backstage rehearsal.
The new Blood Orange album features a host of surprise guest collaborators, including Debbie Harry, Carly Rae Jepsen, and spoken word from Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Black Panther series is already the most important superhero text of the year.
The album, as a whole, sounds firmly rooted in the previously defined Blood Orange aesthetic: dreamy, synth-laden, cleaner around the edges than The Weeknd, and as lovely and lyrical as the best of Solange Knowles, for whom Hynes wrote “Losing You”. Of course, the album is as political as Kendrick’s “Butterfly”, too. The song “Hands Up” floats in and out of audio clips of protestors chanting “hands up, don’t shoot!” following the shooting of Michael Brown.
Without further ado, here are some of the album’s highlights.
Nelly Furtado begins the clearest and cleanest track on the album singing, “you’re the face […] that keeps me dreaming.” It’s a lonely-sounding performance, and brings to mind Furtado singing and spinning in an empty room.
“The door,” Furtado sings, backed by Hynes, is “always open” to the dangerous things in her life. The track is transfixing enough as a near-Broadway-musical sounding ballad, but Hynes’s sad dance-beat joins Furtado onstage stage halfway through.
One of the album’s more upbeat tunes, “Desirée” is just a pleasant, chill wave-sounding track which features Hynes singing the word “Desirée” over and over. It’s all very expressive and loose until Venus Xtravaganza’s monologue from Paris is Burning begins.
In the film and on the track, drag performer Xtravaganza reasons that a middle-class white woman essentially performs prostitution by sleeping with her husband in order to get the things she wants from him. For Xtravaganza, it’s money for survival, and for sexual reassignment surgery. For her imagined suburbanite, she’s fucking her husband for a new washer and dryer.
Hynes’s musings float around on the track too: “Is anyone your friend?”, “maybe it’s a chance for me to go and finally be alone.” There’s doesn’t seem to be a coherent thesis, but it’s a satisfying, head-nodding beat, with some aimless wonderings about sex as a social power exchange sprinkled on top.
At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, “But You” sounds like the moody, contemplative track we might have gotten from Michael Jackson, had his life only turned out differently. Granted, the song’s only refrain — “you are special in your own way” — is pretty saccharine, but the melody is so finely crafted that Hynes is easily forgiven.
Hynes told The New York Times, “It’s actually about walking down a street, and me trying to work out what to do, say, if there’s like a young blond girl in front of me, and we’re the only ones on the street, and it’s me trying not to scare her.”
“Best To You”
“Best To You” is the album’s best candidate for inclusion on a party playlist. It’s a shame that Hynes’s voice isn’t featured prominently here, but it’s clear the song is meant to radiate yearning, even from another’s performer’s mouth.
There’s a stunning segment in the middle, when the lyrics become startlingly desperate. One of the verse’s repeated lines, “I feel my bones crack in my arms and I can tell you what you want,” knocks around in the listener’s brain long after the track is over, made all the more powerful when one remembers Hynes’ admission that Freetown Sound is his most personal album to date. As Hynes told fans on Twitter, these songs are “an incomplete study of who I am, who I was and where I’m from while looking outwards at my peers.” If that’s true, “Best To You” confirms Hynes has wanted someone desperately.
Hynes intends “Augustine” to be the album’s first single, and he released the music video for the track alongside the album. In typical Blood Orange fashion, it’s a danceable song, though its lyrics explore subjects that make you want to crawl back into bed and hide from the world. “And no one even told me the way that you should feel,” Hynes sings in the chorus, echoing the desperate, lost feeling many people have described following recent attacks on black youth in the news. Hynes doubles down on that subject, adding, “tell me, did you lose your son? tell me did you lose your love?” and even giving his audience the image of Trayvon Martin “falling asleep.”
In any other dance track, the song’s repeated couplet, “The things that I would do to you, the things that I could do to you,” would signify lust, but here, it’s a threat Hynes makes while lying in a mire of grief. He ends the track with apostrophes to both Nontetha Nkwenkwe, an African seer who worked in the 1920s, and Saint Augustine of Hippo, an Italian Catholic priest and philosopher who served in Roman-controlled Africa. While Nkwenkwe’s humanitarian work involved the uneducated, and the complication of gender norms, Saint Augustine notably believed slavery to be an egregious sin. Hynes presents all of these texts to his listener, coaxing us in with his characteristic, misty synth pop and surprising us with ragged emotion.