I first listened to Blood Orange a year back when “You’re Not Good Enough” was featured on my Spotify “Play It Forward” playlist. I heard a very Solange-like sound and was immediately sold (turns out Dev Hynes of Blood Orange actually worked on “Losing You” with her). But I also dug the sultry funk added by Blood Orange and had to check out more. So I was pretty psyched when I discovered there was a new album out. Freetown Sound is a socially charged, musically poignant album that engages and stays with its audience beyond listening.
And this album is so important right now. I’m not going to write a huge activist’s message here because a) you’ve already read that or are never going to and b) it’s not my voice that needs to be heard. The system is corrupt and deadly and that won’t change until people are held accountable and action is taken by entire communities nationwide. I’ve thought and discussed in depth how people are driven to action. I don’t believe there’s one answer. I do believe that—as privileged, liberal arts-educated, white woman as this sounds—art can inspire individuals to take a stand. Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound has come out in the midst of yet another one of this country’s sets of highly publicized (because we all know this happens far more regularly than the media lets on) slews of shootings of people of color. And it doesn’t shy away from addressing the problem or celebrating the lives of POCs. I can’t unpack everything in this album, but I can learn from and enjoy it. As a white person who cares about social change, is distressed by these issues, and listens to a fair share of rap/hip hop, I think it’s vital that I take the time to understand this music as fully as I possibly can.
I didn’t know anything about the album going into it (nor had I heard his deep-cutting single “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?”) and so I didn’t realize the aim of the album. I thought it was just another Solange-like, funky, fun collection. While Hynes hasn’t lost his touch, he has stepped up his political game. Certainly this is part of the reason I was so struck after listening to the first song, “By Ourselves”. And I mean struck so much so that I couldn’t process the next song because I was still hung up on the first. This happens over and over again throughout Freetown Sound.
The album is beautifully written. That said, I really think it’s Dev Hynes’ composition—his setup of songs and delivery of lines—that makes these songs so powerful. This guy knows how and when to make a point. “By Ourselves” starts with a long instrumental piece, which almost becomes background noise by the time it gets to the spoken word part. In this way, he emphasizes the words themselves, their actual meanings. Luckily, Ashlee Haze, Atlanta-based, 2-time Woman of the World Poetry Slam Finalist poet also knows a thing or two about delivery. I was nodding furiously in agreement at, “Feminism says as a woman in my arena you are not my competition / As a woman in my arena your light doesn’t make mine any dimmer”. And I had a serious beam on my face at, “…on days I don’t feel pretty / I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me / Pop that pop that, jiggle that fat”. But I was in utter awe, snaps ready at the last lines when Haze speaks to representation and with exasperation and exhaustion says, “I will tell you that right now there are a million black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them”. I think this one line sums up pretty well why Dev Hynes is our favorite intersectional feminist in music right now. And Hynes doesn’t let these poignant, powerful, pure-gold lines go to waste. He uses his mastery in composition to ensure they hit home, linger with and impact listeners.
Likewise, “Chance” is a slow jazz song that I believe is taking on appropriation, but that’s not immediately evident. “Chance” has a spacey quality to it, letting you float for a few, giving your mind some time to wander. But that all comes to a halt at the bridge. Hynes and Kelsey Lu’s voices deliver reverberating one-liners, all both shaky and powerful at once. For me, this song hinges on three lines in this bridge: “Looking at the girl in the thick, blonde braids / And you’re tryin’ to make out what her t-shirt says/ No one really ever cares what “thug life” means”. These lines may not be particularly poetic, but they’re not lines you hear often enough. And to me they sound an awful lot like a person standing in a crowd of people appropriating black culture. This song is soaked in sadness. Not in the pouty Lana, pity-me type way, but in the we have an actual problem type way. With it, Hynes is able to evoke empathy and awareness. He’s able to make you think about what you’re truly saying when you caption your Instagram post with a Kanye lyric and why you’re uncomfortable when you’re friend deems your diverse neighborhood “sketchy”. He challenges you.
I know I’ve only hit on two of the songs on the album, but they do happen to be my favorites. There’s also so much to unpack in Freetown Sound that it takes a fair bit out of you. It’s also rewarding, invigorating work to do. So I pass the baton to y’all. This album truly is one you shouldn’t miss out on. Dev Hynes is at the forefront of so many relevant issues right now and, as Blood Orange, is making such important music. Freetown Sound is an album that challenges listeners, while also showcasing a range of abilities. Blood Orange is so much more than feel-good music. While many of the songs maintain that groovy sound that first made us so fond of Blood Orange, they now also ask us to question our world and reimagine it. By doing so we both accept the reality and become a part of the change. I really can’t stress enough how vital Freetown Sound is. Nor do I want you to take my word for it. Listen. Think. Act.