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Blood Orange Explores Ancestry, Christianity, and Black Identity on 'Freetown Sound'

Music ReviewAndrew MeriwetherComment

Freetown, Sierra Leone was established by British abolitionists and freed slaves from North America back in 1792. The idea was to provide African Americans the chance at new life after bondage enacted through the tenants of the Christian faith, but like many idyllic propositions, its enactment and history is more complicated. Over the course of its life it was destroyed by local inhabitants and rebuilt, eventually colonized—rather ironically—by the British, withstood invasions from the French, declared independence in 1961, and faced civil war in the 90s. Besides being the home city of Dev Hynes’ father, Freetown is also an ideal metaphor and backdrop to Blood Orange’s third studio album.

Spanning 17 songs, Freetown Sound is Hynes’ exploration of a cornucopia of themes including—but certainly not limited to—Christianity, false promises of faith, Black identity, Feminism, sexuality, and police brutality. While being an overtly political album, Hynes never loses himself in abstraction, remaining intensely personal and feeling. After setting the political tone of the album with a sample from a spoken word piece by Ashlee Haze, Hynes moves into one of the “singles” (if there are any singles) "Augustine."

“My father was a young man / My mother off the boat / My eyes were fresh at 21 / Bruised but still afloat.” Here, Hynes directly references his own parents, who immigrated to London in their early 20s, his mother from Guyana and his father from Sierra Leone. The song then shifts to towards St. Augustine, the prolific theologian who spent a great deal of his life in Western Africa. Augustine is an interesting choice; during his young life he struggled greatly with his own sexuality. Using quotations from Augustine’s writing in the chorus, Hynes recontextualizes the bishop in order to reveal the contemporary black, queer experience. Augustine also famously condemned slavery as sin, and encouraged his followers to abandon the horrific practice. Augustine’s Catholicism thus represents the possibility of Christianity to be a liberating force for Blacks, Hynes knows that other followers of the faith were responsible for the mass enslavement of Africans and killing of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, demonstrating the paradoxical conundrum of a being a black Christian. 

This complex examination of personal and cultural history and religion characterizes this album as a whole. The sheer volume of tracks and layers of instrumentation and samples can at times make this album dizzying, and perhaps even a bit disorienting; this is not an album you can get a handle on after the first listen. Nonetheless, Hynes successfully draws the listener in, and will have you leaning forward listening intently to the movement of each song.

Sonically, Freetown Sound is a masterpiece. In an interview with V Magazine, Hynes compares the album’s overall feel to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, in that it plays like “a long mix tape.” While aspects of this album do resemble the aesthetic quality of the mix tape, it could be more accurately characterized as the stream of consciousness of a young man grappling with the realities of being black in the United States. The sudden cuts from a lecture by Ta-Nehisi Coates or the streets of Freetown, mixed with turntable scratches, and the musical interpretation of the ideas contained in those samples, makes one feel as if they are quite literally inside the mind of Hynes.

While still drawing from the 80s soul and R&B to create that hazy, thick, and ethereal sound that has come to characterize Blood Orange, Hynes also expands his musical palate here. There are instances of funk, 808s and hip-hop, and jazz scattered throughout the record, demonstrating Hynes’ virtuosity and understanding of genre. It’s refreshing to hear Hynes utilize new instruments like the saxophone, xylophone, conga, and djembe, and mix his steam-filled-room pop with cleaner instrumentation that provide the tracks a greater vibrancy. Following similar choices from Cupid DeluxeFreetown Sound contains a number of fantastic guest vocalists, including: Empress Of, Ava Raiin, Carley Rae Jepsen, and others. Hadron Collider, for instance, features a gorgeous performance by Nelly Furtado, whose voice absolutely soars alongside Hynes.

Though the sequencing of Freetown Sound can feel messy, this choice seems intentional. Hynes creates a milieu of ideas and feelings that are deconstructed and expanded through sound and verse, letting the listener marinate in its complexity. The result is powerful and moving composition that new and old Blood Orange fans alike will appreciate.