ZSÓFIA PAULIKOVICS explores the latest album from the multi-talented artist Dev Hynes.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense automatically triggers another. It is also a poetic trope used to convey simultaneous sensory experiences. Dev Hynes is a synesthete in the medical sense: he describes seeing sound come alive like moving pictures. One of Freetown Sound’s most outstanding features is how it plays with the senses, multiple senses: the album is visually powerful, just as an art film or great poetry can be. The chorus in ‘Augustine’ fuses a reference to ‘Confessions’ by St Augustine (‘Saint Augustine/Late have I loved and chose to see’) with an intimate, erotic vision of a man (‘Skin on his skin/A warmth that I can feel with him’). ‘Hands Up’ lays down the chorus: ‘Are you sleeping with the lights on baby/Keep your hood off when you’re walking cause they/Trying not to be obsessed with your heyday / Sure enough they are gonna take your body’, over the haunting incantation ‘Hands up, get out, hands up, get out’. Following the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ has become the chant of USA-wide Black Lives Matter protests. Poetry features in content as well as form: ’By Ourselves’ opens the album with a sample of Atlanta poet Ashlee Haze’s viral sensation ‘For Colored Girls – The Missy Elliot Poem’.
Freetown Sound is named after the capital of Sierra Leone, where Hynes’ father is from. The singer grew up in Ilford, Essex before moving to New York in 2007 where he’s lived and worked since. The album is, in many ways, dedicated to that city and its motley crew of inhabitants. Hynes sings about it with a tenderness that is reserved for one’s home, and imagining him in New York makes sense, more so than London or LA. Still, there are times when his non-native status becomes easy to spot, especially to anyone who has ever entertained the thought of moving to New York themselves. Hynes is showing you exactly what you want to see: that staggering house prices and a crowded job economy aside, New York bohemia is alive and well if you know where to look for it. The collaborators he has amassed on Freetown Sound are like a millennial group of beatniks, if the beatniks were actually cool rather than overwhelmingly white, neurotic and male. Women are the soul of the album, driving it forward on almost every song. Young singers like Empress Of, Kelsey Lu and Zuri Marley all feature, as do industry giants like Carly Rae Jepsen and icons like Debbie Harry – the legendary Blondie singer performed alongside Hynes in 2011, supporting Patti Smith in Carnegie Hall.
Dev Hynes is often likened to Prince. It is an easy comparison: there’s an obvious similarity in their voices, their aesthetics and their appearances that feels like it has almost been mythologised by the media. But Hynes isn’t driven by nostalgia – at least, not in the sort of way that makes songs sound gimmicky at worst and faintly familiar at best. Granted, his synth-R&B hooks and saxophone-keyboard instrumentals have a decidedly 80s feel. But Freetown Sound isn’t good because it sounds like Prince – in fact it doesn’t much sound like anything on the current music scene other then, well, itself. Since the release of Coastal Grooves his first album under the Blood Orange moniker, Hynes has collaborated on a number of creative projects in music, dance and film. Pinning down the Blood Orange ‘thing’ isn’t easy, but once you have, you spot it in every project Hynes embarks upon. Like Prince, what makes him outstanding is that he manages to be utterly current but timeless at the same time, doing away with ‘on trend’ as an arbitrary measure of cool.
The list of collaborating artists is truly impressive. Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates is sampled on ‘Love Ya’; rapper and Twitter sensation Vince Staples on ‘Hands Up’; musician and Hood By Air creative consultant Ian Isiah appears on ‘By Ourselves’ and ‘Augustine’. Featured on ‘Hadron Collider’, Nelly Furtado needs no introduction if you had access to music in 2006. One by one, Hynes ticks off references that a culturally conscious millennial would expect to see – it is almost a bit too perfect, too thought through. The album is expansive and wide-reaching, which doesn’t necessarily make it listener-friendly. There is no obvious commercial hit, not much of a narrative arc, a climax. But regardless, it feels coherent and more importantly, authentic. Hynes has an earnest, contagious appreciation for his community: Freetown Sound isn’t simply an exercise to solidify his own cult status. If he is the narrator of the album, he is not the protagonist.
‘Desirée’ marks the geometrical midpoint of the album. This song samples legendary transgender performer Venus Xtravaganza, whose life and art was immortalised in the cult documentary Paris Is Burning. Shortly before the release of his album, Hynes posted a photo on Instagram that has been much circulated since – a handwritten note that reads: ‘My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer in the right way, the under appreciated, it’s a clapback.’ In the Blood Orange universe, being black or queer or black AND queer isn’t just a viable way of life – it is celebrated and centralised. It is a vision that is both defiantly optimistic and timely. And very, very necessary.