“Everybody wanna be a nigga/ Nobody wanna be a nigga” – Paul Mooney
The experience of the successful black entertainer is fraught with contradictions. Artists and athletes celebrated for their talents are checked hard when they speak too loudly, too frankly — then have their legacies revised to fit White America’s narrative.
The above Paul Mooney quote, from an episode of Chappelle’s Show, is the comedian’s resigned summation of the experience. We love the Muhammad Alis, the Princes, the Dave Chappelles… that is, until they get too real, or show too much of themselves, or try to get out of whatever box we’ve placed them in. We venerate the lucky few black Americans who have shaped our culture through art and achievement, while simultaneously making America a dangerous place for them to live.
On June 5, Devonté Hynes, who records and performs under the moniker Blood Orange, posted to Instagram a piece of notebook paper scrawled with a declaration of purpose for his forthcoming album. “My album is for everyone told they’re not BLACK enough, too BLACK, too QUEER, not QUEER the Right Way, the under appreciated, it’s a CLAPBACK,” he writes.
With that album, Freetown Sound, Hynes likely hopes to speak to all the outcasts, all the oppressed. But he’s only human, and his work is filtered through the life he’s lived that brought him here.
The son of immigrant parents, his mother came to the United Kingdom from Guyana, his father from Sierra Leone (the capital of the latter, Freetown, was the inspiration for the record’s title). As a youth in Essex, he attended a prestigious arts school, but was repeatedly assaulted by “boy racers,” car-obsessed, aggro jocks; for having gay friends, wearing makeup, and acting too fem. He says most of his attackers were black.
After achieving modest success as a teen with his dance-punk thrash band Test Icicles, he echoed his parents’ emigration, moving to the U.S. and Omaha, Nebraska, to record with the Saddle Creek records tribe two albums as Lightspeed Champion. The music took such a toll on his voice that he would need vocal surgery.
He came to New York City in 2007 and started recording and performing as Blood Orange, leaving the acoustic and rock leanings of Lightspeed Champion behind for smooth neo-R&B stylings, wielding a mastery of negative space. Appearing on the cover of Out magazine, when he expressed his own fluid sexuality — not gay, but not straight, either — he had has his own queerness questioned by some in the LGBTI community.
All the while, Hynes was coming to terms with the experience of being a black man in America; his time in this country has coincided with names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and Sandra Bland dominating headlines. Black people have always been vulnerable to violence, but it seems others are finally taking notice. Performing at Lollapalooza wearing shirts with “STOP POLICE BRUTALITY” and names of dead black people on them, he and his girlfriend Samantha Urbani are assaulted by an off-duty cop working security. In between his last LP (Cupid Deluxe) and Freetown Sound, he released two songs that clearly show the experience has made its way into his art. Writing songs for Freetown sounds, the images we’ve seen come to life: “Our heads have hit the pavement/Many times before/You stroke his face to soothe him/While knowing that there’s more,” he sings on “Augustine.”
Speaking with Pitchfork’s Jason King, Hynes recalls a moment from an A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator show that stuck with him. “I saw a white girl with blond cornrows wearing a ‘Thug Life’ T-shirt and she was doing a lot of poses, all that shit,” he said. “I remember thinking, No one really cares what Thug Life means. To Pac, it meant: ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.’ But people don’t know that, and a lot of people don’t think about looking deeper. Like, when he would say ‘nigga,’ it meant ‘Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished.’”
This is the state from which Freetown Sound has sprung. Lyrically, the album touches on love, loss, and beauty, but taken as a whole, it feels like a spiritual — the sonic manifestation of generations of oppression. The ingredients draw heavily from the ’80s, and the idols he worshipped growing up; the sax, the synths, the drum machines; Prince, MJ, Bowie. And while the tools may be similar, the record isn’t of the past — it’s Right Now.
The collaborations, as usual, are inspired. The poet Ashlee Haze is sampled reciting part of her poem “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)”, espousing the strength of representation through the lens of a fat black girl listening to Missy Elliott. Debbie Harry laces guest vocals on a track (E.V.P.) that could have been a Blondie B-side from the ‘80s. Flavorwire favorite Starchild drops some butter-soft vocals on “But You”, “Hands Up”, “Better Than Me,” and can be seen doing some casual voguing in the “Augustine” video. We’d already heard the Nelly Furtado duet on “Hadron Collider” from his benefit shows at the Apollo Theater (and the difficult-to-find cassette). And Kelsey Lu shines ever so briefly in the duet from the end of “Chance” — that part about the girl in the “THUG LIFE” t-shirt —one of our favorite moments on the LP.
On “Best To You,” Hynes not only borrows Loreley Rodriguez’s angelic voice and words, but her whole production style; like a rapper borrowing another’s flow on a collaborative track as a show of mutual respect and admiration, Hynes’ synthed-out vibraphone and drum programming would have sounded right at home on her stellar debut LP Me.
The most beautiful thing about Freetown Sound might just be its place in the Blood Orange discography, the progression of a sound. Over his last three LPs, we’ve watched and listened to Hynes find his voice, both as an artist coming into adulthood, fully exploring and sharing his “Self,” and also quite literally, finding a manageable register after the throat surgery that followed his Lightspeed Champion records and tours. Ideas he started Coastal Grooves’ “Champagne Coast” make their way into the reprise on Freetown Sound, and the refrain from “With Him” is reprised not once, but several times.
When we listen to Freetown Sound, we’re hearing one of the brightest artistic minds of his generation examining his own blackness, queerness, and individuality without shame or compromise. And in the process, he’s provided an example for those deemed too dark, too fat, too butch, too fem, too this, too that — the outcasts — that from pain can come beauty, and from despair, hope. It’s a sight to behold.