The key to getting your head around Blood Orange’s sprawling, hugely ambitious and occasionally unwieldy third album lies with two songs you won’t find on the tracklisting. In his annotations to the lyrics of ‘Sandra’s Smile’ – released last October following the controversial death of Black Lives Matter activist Sandra Bland – Devonté Hynes wrote that the song’s themes of forgiveness and black Christianity were “a deeper question, and one I’ve been writing about in my personal time a lot”. His parents’ faith, and Hynes’ upbringing in it, plays an important role on ‘Freetown Sound’. But even more significant is ‘Do You See My Skin Through The Flames?’, an 11-minute audio-collage-cum-therapy-session, on which he reflected on last summer’s racially motivated church shooting in Charleston, the white privilege of his own audience and the slave origins of his surname. “We have to keep deconstructing our past, re-evaluating, and learn to speak,” he concludes. “I’m going to reclaim it and hopefully we’ll move on.”
Ultimately, that’s what ‘Freetown Sound’ – named after the slave-founded capital of Sierra Leone, where Hynes’ father was born – is all about. Hynes has points to make about identity and cultural appropriation – “No one ever really cares what ‘Thug Life’ means,” he sings on ‘Chance’ – but these songs come from a deeper place than politics. “My father was a young man, my mother off the boat / My eyes were fresh at 21, bruised but still afloat,” goes the opening line of ‘Augustine’, a song which later weaves in references to Trayvon Martin and Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a subversive South African prophetess committed to a mental institution in the 1920s. If the connections aren’t readily apparent, they reveal themselves with further listening: in a nutshell, this album is about the social and generational forces that have shaped Hynes’ own sense of blackness.
Inevitably, there are a number of cameos along the way – Nelly Furtado on ‘Hadron Collider’, Carly Rae Jepsen on ‘Better Than Me’, even Debbie Harry on the lithe disco-funk of ‘E.V.P.’ – but these 17 songs never truly leave the inside of Hynes’ head. The album plays a lot like a mixtape – Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ has been cited as an influence – whose songs bleed into each other and whose mood is more self-examining than celebratory.
There are isolated moments, such as the luminous R&B of ‘But You’, where his pop sensibilities shine through; for the most part, though, it resembles a sombre diaristic splurge of thoughts, feelings and observations – beautifully expressed, but in such a way that only the author knows how they all fit together. With ‘Freetown Sound’, he’s made something bold, challenging, uncompromising and overlong – an album, like the man who made it, that’s the sum of its parts and then some.