Rewind to a couple months ago in the weeks following Prince’s death (or over half a decade ago with Michael Jackson). For every hot take that celebrated Prince as a pillar of Black excellence, there was a parallel take that his legacy transcended the mortal bounds of race.
Death lends itself to this ideological maxim, and surely, great talent exists past a corporal timespan. But this dialogue toward Black artists — that we can view their Blackness, in its widespread appeal, through colorblind glasses — is thinly veiled erasure at its core.
For producer and multi-instrumentalist Dev Hynes, his latest record Freetown Sound reads as an homage for these icons, one that makes sure that their legacy, Blackness and all, carries past the afterlife.
Hynes’ work as Blood Orange draws easy comparisons to Prince and Jackson. The parallels are there: His knack for crisp, wistful production, which approximates the soulful sound of the two, not only shaped his sound but was integral to the rebranding of alt-pop royalty Sky Ferreira and Solange Knowles.
Like Jackson, he’s an accomplished dancer. (Look at the fancy footwork in the video for “You’re Not Good Enough.”) Like Prince, his musical prodigy is nearly unmatched by his peers. (Hynes, in addition to Blood Orange, has ventured into punk outbursts and singer-songwriter romanticism.)
And, like both, he’s not afraid to embrace femininity: He’s alluded to his preference toward female voices, many of which (Carly Rae Jepsen on the twinkling “Better Than Me,” Nelly Furtado on the outstanding “Hadron Collider”) are placed in a starring role.
But there’s one point of distinction: Black artists are a rarity in the realm of white “indie” music that Hynes is placed in, unlike the pop of his forebears.
So we have Freetown Sound: a composite sketch of what the Black identity — in all of its unyielding faith, devastating loss, pointed intersections and global diaspora — stands for in 2016.
The details are key. Consider the album artwork, an arresting diorama crafted by photographer Deana Lawson. Its central image is a Black couple locked in an intimate embrace, but to the left is a poster of Michael Jackson circa “Beat It,” and the right, a St. Jude prayer candle.
Freetown Sound operates with this assiduousness to detail, drawing upon the intricacies of Black life. The album opens with “By Ourselves,” in which a stunning gospel choir cedes the stage for a slam ode to Missy Elliott and Black womanhood by poet Ashlee Haze.
Individually, the songs are rich, compositionally vibrant pieces that draw from the languid pop stylings that characterized ‘80s radio.
Highlight “Best to You” taps into the exuberant skitter that’s embedded in the dancehall popularized by the likes of Drake and Rihanna as much as it is in new-wave acts such as Blondie. “E.V.P.” makes the Blondie allusion concrete, an homage to the band’s “Rapture,” which even borrows Debbie Harry for a scene-stealing feature.
But what’s most remarkable in Freetown is its overarching cohesiveness, due in part to Hynes’ tasteful, exceptional auteurism over the course of its 17 tracks. Above its sonic unity, Freetown Sound stands in solidarity with art that draws upon Blackness in all its nuance, from the snippets of ball culture documentary “Paris is Burning” (“Desiree”) to the rousing voices of Ta-Nehisi Coates and KRS-One (“Love Ya” and “Chance,” respectively).
In the week following Freetown Sound’s release, two Black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, were both victims to police brutality.
“No no no no no no I can’t do this anymore,” Hynes tweeted the evening of Castile’s death. By that point, his harrowing death had broken across its original Twitter and Facebook disseminated livestream to the influx of traditional media pieces.
It’s all too appropriate that Hynes closes off Freetown Sound with “Better Numb.” In its last seconds, all that’s left is the sound of channel-flipping. It’s the sound of the perpetual 24-hour news influx, a site, more than anywhere else, that imposes emotional turmoil as painful routine.
Freetown Sound positions the political and the personal as inextricable. As such, Hynes’ intent is clear: Black art, especially where the fragments “transcend race,” must not be pulled away from its Blackness if the lives of people are not.