It seems strange to think now that Dev Hynes’ career pretty much started off as a joke. As a member of Test Icicles, he cashed in on the whole ‘dance-punk’ craze a decade ago before the outfit split after just one album, admitting that they weren’t really big fans of the music that they played. Now, a decade on, Hynes is one of the most in-demand producers in the world, a figure feted by names such as Solange Knowles, Sky Ferreira and Carly Rae Jepsen.
He’s also been pretty busy as an artist himself, firstly as the country-tinged troubadour Lightspeed Champion and, most successfully, under his current guise as Blood Orange. The latter has almost defined his career, especially in the USA, and his third album Freetown Sound is his most personal, ambitious record to date.
In fact, at first, it sounds a bit too ambitious. Freetown Sound is a huge, sprawling 17 track record which lasts for nearly an hour – Hynes has described it as sounding like a mixtape, and some tracks mesh seamlessly into each other, while others just starkly peter out. There’s ambient noise, snatches of spoken word and a stellar list of guest vocalists. Yet what keeps Freetown Sound anchored is the subject matter: this is weighty stuff from Hynes, exploring racial identity, gender politics and drawing inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s this subject matter that leads to the most affecting moments on Freetown Sound. Hands Up references the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown by means of slinky soul given a macabre twist by lyrics like “keep your hood up when you’re walking” and ending with samples of Black Lives Matter protesters chanting “hands up don’t shoot”. At first listen, But You may sound extraordinarily sappy, a syrupy ballad featuring lines like “you are special in your own way” – yet when you read that Hynes wrote it about walking behind a young white girl and trying not to scare her, then a line like “can you feel the way they think about me through the years” gives it an extra-poignant twist. These are hauntingly personal songs about what it means to be young and black in today’s world, which deserve to sit next to recent material by Kendrick Lamar or D’Angelo.
Hynes never forgets to inject a large dose of pop sensibility into matters, though. Long-term friend and collaborator Carly Rae Jepsen sprinkles her own special brand of pop magic into Better Than Me, and Nelly Furtado takes centre-stage on the downbeat, wistful ballad Hadron Collider (surely the first pop song to be named after a Particle Accelerator?). As throughout his career, Hynes works particularly well with women, and tracks like the disco-funk laced EVP where he shines the spotlight on none other than Deborah Harry, or Lorely Rodriguez of Empress You‘s contribution on Best To You are the most successful moments of Freetown Sound.
Admittedly, sometimes the album’s ambition does threaten to trip itself up – there’s a few too many half-sketched ideas crammed in, as opposed to fully formed songs; a bit of ruthless editing might have whittled down the running time to a more manageable 50 minutes or so. However, there’s certainly more highlight than filler contained in Freetown Sound and it is, ultimately, an album that deserves to be heard.