Dev Hynes has called Freetown Sound his most personal album to date. Indeed, its reference points include not just gender, race, and sexuality, but also his father’s native Africa and even his complex relationship with God. And musically, the album sets out to do what Hynes’s two prior releases under the Blood Orange moniker couldn’t: rebut the argument that his best songs have been produced for and performed by other artists.
This ambition yields 59 minutes of funk and intimacy on Freetown Sound, largely a tempering of Hynes’s dance-floor instincts in favor of the more pensive and slyly rhythmic style of peers like Twin Shadow and Autre Ne Veut. Yet for all its cues to who Hynes is and how he feels, the album sometimes feels slick and unfocused. This is partly due to its distracted sequencing, with clips from cult movies and poems more often interrupting Freetown Sound’s flow than universalizing the album’s themes as intended, and partly due to the ’80s vibe Hynes so faithfully recreates, which swings from cool to maudlin with little space for introspection between. Freetown Sound, while a dexterous and commendable exploration of the Blood Orange template, often overwhelms and needlessly recontextualizes Hynes’s attempts to write from within, almost like an autobiographical work once-removed.
The album has the potential of a personal masterwork, but its master is more conductor than confessor.
Take opener “By Ourselves,” a modern gospel song that culminates in a poem about learning self-confidence. Body positivity is an admiral message, but here the message comes in the form of guest Ashlee Haze’s impassioned reading that broadly quotes Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch.” That’s several degrees of separation from Hynes, who’s of course dealt with and fought for similar issues, but shies away from saying so himself on the first track of his own album. Similar spotlight is given to a typically shrewd roster of guest artists: a revived Nelly Furtado steals the twinkly “Hadron Collider,” newcomer Kelsey Lu gets the confrontational half of the call-and-response with Hynes that closes “Chance,” and the sultry vocals of BEA1991 makes one wonder exactly who she is (which distracts from Hynes’s character development). Hidden behind this smokescreen of imported talent, Hynes is like a curator instead of a conscious participant in his own narrative.
Still, Hynes’s half-sung, half-spoken verses—which are all over Freetown Sound, often backed by one synth chord and a syncopated drum machine—have a way of sounding urgent and emotive. His nearly atonal, arrhythmic delivery is mindfully endearing, and his choruses, often three-chord bombs that land on a simmering and sustained final note, hit as deeply as they ever do. Added to this formula are a few new tricks, like the windswept saxophone that sounds pumped in from the backseat of a speeding convertible (on “Chance,” “With Him,” “Thank You,” “Love Ya,” and “Squash Squash”), and through his electronic instrumentation Hynes also shows clear fascination with the early wave of computerized art-rock: the Talking Heads’s “Once in a Lifetime” echoes on “Chance,” the deadpanning of the Pet Shop Boys’s “West End Girls” is heard on “Better Than Me,” and the plastic funk of “E.V.P.” owes its existence to Prince’s “D.M.S.R.” There’s also plenty of direct sampling, which ultimately makes for an adventurous, unpredictable, and nostalgic album.
The lingering problem with this nostalgia, however, is that it’s not entirely indebted to Hynes’s own experiences. There are moments on this album where he rises to the occasion as a performer, like his fiery vocal on “Chance” (“Why the fuck d’you even speak?/It’s not a choice of speech and it sure ain’t free”), his face-off with Christianity on “Juicy 1-4,” or how he makes a quiet afterhours anthem out of police abuse on the stunning “Hands Up,” but the muscle here is in Hynes’s inventive production and his collaborative spirit—and some of this album’s most private material comes from its contributors. Freetown Sound certainly has the sprawl, hyperactivity, and potential of a personal masterwork, but its master is more conduit and conductor than confessor.