Freetown Sound is one of the biggest surprises of 2016, and I’ve felt tongue-tied every time I listen. This album is a violent rush of pop mastery, the kind of cultural explosion that’s rarely matched with such slick and catchy production. It’s difficult to talk about.
What I do know is that Blood Orange has somehow conjured the urgency of Kendrick Lamar’s American dystopia and the defiant fantasia of Beyoncé’s Lemonade while sounding like no one but himself.
I’ll admit it: before this album, I thought Blood Orange was an indie rock band. I was wrong. Accordingly, I had zero interest until I saw mention of Prince and Alice Coltrane in a positive review. Name-checking those two musical legends seemed like a bold move calculated to pique my curiosity. I dove in immediately.
Freetown Sound is explosive yet deeply composed, bursting with stylistic variety and melodic density. There are a dozen unique and catchy touches embedded in every song. Each track surprises with sudden shifts in texture and tone, erupting with new instruments, sounds, and hooks. It’s a visceral rush, and that’s before the hair-raising lyrics set in, vocals courtesy of Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange himself) and guests like Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and Carly Rae Jepsen.
A song like E.V.P veers into deep-80s Prince, tumbling through modern R&B before ending on a dissonant cello outro that would have made Arthur Russell blush. Instead of being an odd exception, it feels like the blueprint for the album as a whole.
Early standout Best To You steamrolls through syncopated balearic rhythms with a Reich-like vibraphone and effervescent female vocals. Moments like this showcase the stunning confidence of moving through a dizzying array of styles without even the threat of stumbling.
Plasticine synthesizers rub elbows with spiritual jazz saxophone and deep groove funk bass across the entire set, culminating in a breathlessly kaleidoscopic experience.
This is a heightened breed of pop music that stands along with Kendrick Lamar‘s recent free jazz hip-hop and Beyonce’s freewheeling r&b masterwork Lemonade as a testament to the power of black music today. The album defines 2016 perhaps more than anything else released this year.
The lyrics are the most knotty, difficult part of the experience to unpack, especially as a white male. They’re filled with loving affirmations of blackness, defiant gestures against decades of cultural baggage, and blistering, transcendent cries that echo the darkest moments of today, most notably on the song Hands Up, named after the phrase that became a rallying cry for civil rights across the country. Hynes goes personal, too; lyrics address queer relationships and gender identity, excavate family history, and erupt in wounded spiritual uplift.
Before the first true song begins, the album introduces poet Ashlee Haze, setting the tone with a spoken word passage that contains the following hair-raising verse:
If you ask me why representation is important
I will tell you that on the days I don’t feel pretty
I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me
Pop that pop that, jiggle that fat
Don’t stop, get it til your clothes get wet
I will tell you that right now there are a million black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them.
Haze ends the poem breathless and ragged. The silence is immediately subsumed by the propulsive drum machine leading into Augustine, a song about family and race through the lens of history. Over a skittering beat and gelid piano, lyrics connect the dots between the Christianty of Saint Augustine, Hynes’ immigrant parents, and the horror of Trayvon Martin’s final moments. It’s heavy stuff, buoyed by inescapably catchy music.
As it turns out, the album is named after Freetown, Sierra Leone, the place where Hynes’ father was born.
Added together, the interlocking pieces of Freetown Sound result in one of the most nuanced pictures of life in 2016 that I’ve experienced. This is the kind of grand statement that all great pop aspires to reach, but so few albums ever come close.
If I had a to choose a perfect introductory song, it’d be Augustine: