In Brittany Spanos’ Blood Orange cover story for this month’s print magazine, Dev Hynes shared his thoughts on the fabric of his new record, Freetown Sound: “The album is more of an exercise in thinking about yourself and family and timelines and bloodlines.”
To decode Hynes’ web of “timelines and bloodlines” from an outsider perspective isn’t the easiest of tasks. By his own admission, some of the themes of the album are imagined and conceptualised whereas others are explicit references to the everyday. This patchwork of ideas and abstractions is reflected in the intertextuality of Freetown Sound – a record joined together by samples and snippets from the wider Blood Orange domain.
Love Ya uses a sample of an interview with MacArthur grant awardee Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is an African American writer at The Atlantic whose profile rose considerably in 2014 when he penned a cover story for the magazine entitled The Case For Reparations.
Following that piece, he wrote a book, Between The World And Me, which prompted some to praise Coates as the heir to James Baldwin’s personal, autobiographical commentary on race in America. It’s easy to see why Hynes called upon the Coates sample for Freetown – both approach race from an individualised perspective which can be extrapolated on to wider, social challenges. The snippet is an audio clip of Coates discussing how he would walk down the road in public – a topic Hynes discussed with Jon Caramanica at the New York Times. To learn more about Coates, you could read his lengthy sit down with Playboy, but the best introduction to his views on race and its place in American history can be found on the New York Public Library Podcast Series. The podcast is long but helps to elucidate his worldview and – in turn – explicate some of the themes written into Freetown Sound.
Far beyond the sidewalks of New York City, Hynes’ father’s home country Sierra Leone and its capital Freetown form the album’s impetus. Hynes cleverly interpolates themes of West African Christianity (most explicitly on Augustine) into the record, and interestingly, Freetown the city has been written about in the past decade for demonstrating a level of tolerance and unity between faith groups outlined by The Economist in 2014.
Augustine finishes with the voice of Nontetha Nkwenkwe – a South African religious missionary from the 1920s whose messages of faith and devotion to the black underclasses led to her institutionalisation at the hands of the state. These narrative threads appear explicitly on Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, but they play just as big a role in the DNA of Freetown Sound – the relationship between displacement and empowerment under the restrictions of repressive power structures.
Throughout the album, the tapestry of samples build a picture of redefinition and empowerment which briefly reaches a climax on the glistening With Him interlude. Here, Hynes uses voices from Marlon Riggs’ 1994 documentary Black is… Black Ain’t. The film explored homophobia and misogyny among the black community. The intersection of queer culture and black identity is something Hynes has discussed in the past in reference to his time growing up in London.
Hynes also enlists the commentary of Long Beach rapper Vince Staples for Hands Up. Taken from a filmed interview with TIME which you can watch below, Staples discusses his view that ‘90s rap is overrated. That sentiment in and of itself might seem incongruous among the makeup of Freetown Sound – a record which samples De La Soul and KRS One – but the snippet Hynes lifts from the interview aligns with the record at a broader conceptual level. Vince talks about diverting from the hip hop archetype – a key element to the more subversive rap songs on his 2015 record Summertime ’06. What could be teased out from the inclusion of this interview on Freetown Sound is that Hynes is treading a similar path. As Staples says, “We don’t have all black friends, we don’t have all white friends, we don’t have all Asian friends. Everything is just, kind of, mixed up in the pie.”
In 2015, a video of Atlanta slam poet Ashlee Haze reading her piece entitled For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem) at a preliminary tournament round in Washington DC went viral leading to Missy paying Haze a home visit. On Freetown, Haze’s voice provides the opening track with a stirring arc. Atop Hynes’ unfurling instrumentation, Haze’s sermon on womanhood in hip hop provides a neat encapsulation of the Freetown vision. Piecing together these voices of displacement and hope, Hynes crafts his own personal opus.
The story always trails back to New York City and one of the quintessentially NYC voices which illustrates Hynes’ vision comes from Venus Xtravaganza, a trans performer who featured heavily in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. Venus was strangled to death in 1988 aged 23. Her killer has never been found and footage of her explosive, unbound personality is now exceptionally poignant. Her fantasies of being “a spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs” have been discussed at length since.
Interestingly, Venus’ name has appeared in a collection of essays: Posthuman Bodies. Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston’s commentary on Venus illuminate the inner-workings of Freetown Sound better than any critic could. I’d strongly recommend reading this short extract on posthuman theory to better understand the idea of displacement which plays such a key role in the record. Here’s one quote which stood out: “Whiteness, in other words, functions in this fantasy as a limit of the real and as a desired category only because it is unattainable or impossible. […] Madonna performs the real “whiteness” that voguing exposes as drag in order to stabilize the categories and make her whiteness and realness work for her in a way that Venus never can. While Venus and the other queens imitate a whiteness they find in fashion magazines, Madonna imitates the imitation in order to reclaim and re-secure voguing for superstars. Madonna’s performance and her blond translation of voguing make her a real millionaire; Venus dies before the film project is completed, a murder victim.”
The beauty of an album like Freetown Sound is that it can evolve and interpretations can change from listener to listener. Unpacking it and contextualising it should only provide assistance for personal response. Hynes, and the ensemble cast of voices he brings together, exist on a common ground of otherness. Their approaches range from elaborate voguing melodrama through to long-form introspective writing, but that shared thread is impossible to underplay.