30-year-old British multi-instrumentalist Dev Hynes may not be the most well-known musician, but his status as a singer, songwriter and producer makes him one of the most talented hidden gems working in the industry today. From playing for 2000s dance-punk band Test Icicles to going solo under the moniker Lightspeed Champion (now changed to Blood Orange), Hynes has written and produced songs for Sky Ferreira, Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange Knowles, FKA Twigs and Florence and The Machine. Other than his expertise in music production, what makes Hynes such a skilled musician is his drive to push against both sonic and thematic boundaries, making music that challenges the status quo. This fearless passion fueled his acclaimed 2013 sophomore effort Cupid Deluxe and his newest album as Blood Orange, Freetown Sound, propels Hynes even further into groundbreaking territory.
Like other great concept albums, Freetown Sound is a record as personally relevant as it is socially conscious, incorporating both universality and specificity. On the one hand, the album’s core influence stems from Hynes’s connection to his father, whose hometown of Freetown, Sierra Leone appears in the title. But, even more so, the record is a celebration of difference, identity and cultural unity, particularly that of Black and queer pride. According to a recent Instagram post, Hynes dedicated this album to “everyone told they’re not Black enough, too Black, too queer, not queer the right way."
While Freetown Sound is certainly long (its 17 tracks stretch to about an hour), listening to the whole album song-by-song is a gratifying and mesmerizing experience. Freetown benefits not only from Hynes’ breathy vocals and gifted songwriting, but also from the album’s eclectic fusion of soul, hip hop, jazz, New Wave, calypso and pop. Throughout the record, Hynes successfully imbues his own worldview into the woozy rhythms, powerful lyrics and suitable samples of each track. Tropical standouts “Augustine” and “Best to You” find Hynes channeling different sides of his personality, the former embracing his African heritage and the latter embracing that of a lover. “Hands Up” is a catchy yet unnerving anthem that spotlights the #BlackLivesMatter movement, with Hynes recognizing the victimization of young Black kids in the song’s chorus (“Keep your hood off when you're walking ‘cause they / Hands up, get up, hands up, get up”). The song also acts as a companion piece to the slightly superior “Sandra’s Smile,” a dizzying, synth-heavy, Sandra Bland-referencing tune Hynes released back in 2015 as a non-album single. However, when Hynes isn’t political, he softly and beautifully sings of unrequited love, heartbreak and loneliness on woeful tunes “With Him,” “Squash Squash” and “Better Than Me.”
In addition to being an album that encompasses creative expression, Freetown Sound is an intensely collaborative record, the majority of those collaborators being women. Though the artists helping Hynes go uncredited, they heighten Freetown Sound’s already incredible foundation, as well as highlight the album’s feminist overtones. The impressive list includes Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry on “E.V.P.,” Zuri Marley on “Love Ya,” Carly Rae Jepsen on “Better Than Me,” Nelly Furtado (yes, the Nelly Furtado) on “Hadron Collider,” Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez on “Best to You” and New York-based singer Ava Raiin providing background vocals on multiple tracks. Hynes also samples Atlanta slam poet Ashlee Haze’s “For Colored Girls” on the fierce opener “By Ourselves,” where she praises rapper Missy Elliott and acknowledges the significance of representation of Black women in the media.
Freetown Sound is to Hynes what Lemonade is to Beyoncé, To Pimp a Butterfly is to Kendrick Lamar, and Black Messiah is to D’Angelo. The album is not only a compelling, kaleidoscopic record with personal and political undertones, but also a powerfully evocative mosaic of thought-provoking themes and messages that blend together almost effortlessly. Freetown Sound is a triumph for Hynes, especially as it effectively conveys the singer/songwriter’s struggle to find a place to call his home. He was born in London and lives in New York City, but Hynes goes even deeper by illuminating his Freetown roots. Just as important is Hynes’s ability to speak, write and sing about some of the most topical issues of today. In light of ongoing police brutality targeting Black people and the recent tragic shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Freetown Sound is not just a tribute to these oppressed groups, but also a stark reminder that we cannot ignore the harsh realities that surround us every day.