A lot of hip-hop and R&B in the last few years seems to be very explicitly informed by the socio-political climate. This in contrast to being subconsciously influenced, which is more common. And the results, at the very least, have made the music more ambitious. Some examples: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, perhaps the most obvious example; Le1f’s Riot Boi, which Blood Orange helped produce the closer of, and which broadened Butterfly’s message to include the LGBT community; Beyonce’s latest, which included an anthem for black women; D’Angelo’s Black Messiah; Vic Mensa’s latest EP. The list goes on, and I’m being purposely myopic so as to not include Beyonce’s explicit feminist ideals in her self-titled, Donnie Trumpet’s message of self-love on Surf or Macklemore’s “Same Love,” to make a point. And while grand ambition doesn’t equate to grand execution, the music felt more important because of the socio-political influence and the emotional heft behind it.
I bring all this up because Blood Orange a.k.a. Devote Hynes is very much aware of what is happening around him, and as a result, his music is almost always so personal that listening to it, I often feel like an outsider looking in — Cupid Deluxe’s “Uncle ACE” means a lot more once you understand the context. And this one practically begins with a sample of a spoken word poem titled “For Colored Women” by Ashlee Haze that thanks Missy Elliott for the positive effect Elliott had on Haze’s idea of beauty and femininity and feminism.
For the uninitiated, Blood Orange first gained notice after producing Solange’s “Losing You” and Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing”. His breakthrough album, Cupid Deluxe was something of a mix bag: songs like “Chamakay” and “You’re Not Good Enough” connected, but stuff like the hip-hop features and some production choices hindered the project. And he has since picked up more work as a producer, from the aforementioned Le1f to internet-approved heavy-hitters like FKA twigs, Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware and Carly Rae Jepsen (who returns the favor by providing vocals on “Better Than Me”).
Freetown Sound is more consistent, but longer. The sprawl — 17 tracks totaling 60 minutes, compared to Cupid’s 11 tracks barely over 50 — speaks to the ambition I wrote about earlier, even if the music didn’t. Freetown, is, of course, the capital of Sierra Leone, and peppered throughout the album are snippets of films, speeches and songs addressing inequality (for example, “Thank You” ends with De La Soul yelling “A meteor has more right than my people!” from Stakes is High). And throughout the album are a ton of guests ranging from Blondie’s Debbie Harry to Nelly Furtado to a bunch of lesser-known talents; the result is something communal; sweeping.
Want me to talk specifics? Sure, the first half is loaded with some of Blood Orange’s best: the “Saint Augustine” hook of “Augustine”; the tropical rhythm and bowed strings of “Best to You” (with vocals from Empress Of); the Prince-tribute of Debbie Harry-aided “E.V.P.” (shame that they underuse the digitally manipulated vocals between 1:22 – 1:40 though). On the other side of the album, Nelly Furtado flickers into falsetto during the choruses of “Hadron Collider”, which contains a gorgeous piano-led interlude. Meanwhile, a shimmering synth powers “Better Than You”, which is the best example of the communal sweep I talked about earlier: check out the final instance of the chorus, where Carly Rae Jepsen provides some gorgeous harmonies and Starchild’s Bryndon Cook joins in to the triple vocals.
That’s all good, but the album is, as mentioned, a sprawl. A lot of tracks simply feel inconsequential, or placeholders until the next ‘hit’: “With Him’s” first part is a sickly rhyme that reads like it came out of a drunken diary entry (“You chose to fade away with him / I chose to try and let you in”) and its second part is a sample of Black Is… Black Ain’t that has nothing to do with the first half. Similarly, “Desiree” is distinguished by the bookmarked samples from Paris Is Burning, which do more for the track than the actual song sections (there’s a really grotesque wet sound during the bridge, starting at the 1:22 mark). Elsewhere, closer “Better Numb” is only notable for the helicopter whirl in the background.
But for the record, it is his best and I have a feeling his next one — if he tightens up the sprawl — will be even better. As it stands, it’s a flawed love-letter to the ’80s, to the people who just want to dance, to the people who feel marginalized, to the people who feel oppressed. Given recent events, it’s an uplifting album in embarrassing times.