Dev Hynes has carved an intriguing career in the space between pop and underground rock. The Londoner’s early projects — noise band Test Icicles, folk project Lightspeed Champion — were bravura feats of chameleonic invention, quirky but with a coherent vision. He has since quietly achieved success as behind-the-scenes hitmaker, writing for Solange Knowles, Kylie Minogue, Carly Rae Jepsen, and others.
With his third outing as Blood Orange, the now Brooklyn-based 30-year-old delivers perhaps his most sublime surprise yet: A funk and soul record that delves into third rail topics such as amorphous sexual identity and racial turmoil, while also reflecting on Hynes’s own journey from immigrant child to the dizzying echelons of New York music (“Freetown” refers to the capital of Sierra Leone, where his father lived prior to moving to the UK aged 21).
With cameos by Jepsen, Nelly Furtado, and African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the album doesn’t hide its ambitious. And, at it’s most cohesive, it’s a delight: ‘Best To You’ (a duet with Los Angeles singer Lorely Rodriguez) is blissfully melancholic europop; ‘Thank You’ suggests a lo-fi Hall and Oates (a genius idea it turns out).
Yet across 17 tracks there is space for indulgence too: ‘Love Ya’ is an endless sax solo in search of a purpose; ‘With Him’ appears to have been written with the express purpose of boring/baffling the listener into submission.
That’s a shame as this is clearly a deeply personal undertaking for Hynes. With less obfuscation and a focus on engaging with the audience rather than challenging it just for the sake of it, he might have created a minor classic. Instead, Freetown Sound demands admiration but doesn’t particularly care for your love or empathy.