Monday, July 4, 2016

album review: 'freetown sound' by blood orange

Let's talk about sex.

Specifically, what one would consider 'sexy' within the context of music - and unsurprisingly, there's a range when it comes to this sort of thing - what one person might consider sexy or racy or even kinky another might tedious or overdone or even offensive. And of course such ideas tend to evolve over time, but if you want to flip to an instantly recognizable period where 'sexy' music was dominant, an easy place to start would be 80s pop and R&B. This was the era of Prince and Madonna, artists testing the limits of explicit content and good taste, but doing it with enough sensuality and tightness to make some killer music out of it before most the 90s hammered much of it into a brick wall - I might like grunge, adult alternative, punk, and gangsta rap, but most of it wouldn't fall into what the popular conscious considers 'sexy music'.

As such, if you're on the fringe of R&B in the modern era, it tends to be an easy instrumental shorthand to call back to the 80s, which was the first big impression I got from Blood Orange, the stage name for Devonte Hynes. Now he's been around the indie scene for well over a decade, starting with a few indie folk records under the ridiculous name Lightspeed Champion, but in 2011 he'd reinvent himself into a smooth crooner trying to blend liquid indie guitar tones with the tight beats you'd remember from Prince. And yet I've never quite been impressed with him - instrumentally he gets most of the way there, even if I do think the tones aren't quite as tight as they could be, but Hynes himself never impressed me as a singer. Hate to say it but he's nowhere close to matching his instrumentation when it comes to personality, less Prince than El DeBarge or maybe even Eddie Murphy. And that's a problem when the writing isn't particularly interesting either, especially on that first album. So for his follow-up he called in all his indie connections for an even more lavish slice of 80s revival music on Cupid Deluxe... and yet somehow it was even worse. Maybe it's my fault for relistening to Prince after he passed away a few months ago and then coming to this expecting something with tightness or greater punch in the melodies to build to a real hook, or a vocal performance that can make any impact at all, or guest performances that remotely fit with this style of music, but this record fell incredibly flat for me. And yeah, I can appreciate the exploration of queer themes, but they sure as hell deserved better presentation than this - I might have issues when The Weeknd pulls from this era, but he at least can get the groove and atmosphere of this material a lot better.

But it didn't look like Blood Orange was done yet, so out of nowhere he dropped a surprise album called Freetown Sound, which in following the grand 80s tradition of R&B goes straight into politics. And immediately I had justifiable concerns - I can point to a string of bad political albums and songs out of the mid-to-late 80s and a lot fewer success stories - and also because of his guest stars to help define his black queer vision, he pulls on icons of that community like Carly Rae Jepsen, lead singer of Blonde Debbie Harry, and Nelly Furtado. Okay, yeah, that's not fair - he's worked with Carly Rae Jepsen before and he also got Zuri Marley, spoken word artist Ta-Nehisi Coates, slam poet Ashlee Hayes - but as someone who hasn't really liked the last two Blood Orange records or their attempts at sensuality, I didn't have high expectations here. But that means it can only get better, so what did we get with Freetown Sound?

Oh, I know this review is not going to be popular, because yes, while I'd say Freetown Sound is better than Cupid Deluxe, I'm still not much of a fan of this. And no, it's not because of the subject matter or themes, most of which I find fascinating, but an issue that's been persistent for Blood Orange's entire run of R&B: the music itself isn't all that interesting or well-constructed, the sort of half-formed 80s R&B revivalism that doesn't seem to have half of the punch and swell of the best of that genre. And look, I get the increased focus on lyrics and ideas in reviews of this record - come on, it's me here - but there's a big difference between highlighting these for greater focus and ignoring musical missteps because you like the message or want to be seen as progressive - especially when Hynes himself has said the record isn't quite as political as many have thought or emphasized.

So that is a lot to unpack, so let's start with the content and what this record is trying to say... and almost intentionally it doesn't seem to have a defined narrative throughline, more scattershot and half-formed, with recurring motifs and ideas surrounding queer and black identity fading in and out. And very quickly it becomes clear that Hynes himself isn't looking to make a coherent point surrounding this identity, more focused on how that identity is defined, whether it be from others or within. If anything, he's more concerned with people being honest about the image and definition of themselves rather than the content of that identity, or at the very least knowing the history - if a white girl is going to wear braids and a 'Thug Life' shirt to a music festival and then completely ignore the roots of black culture and real struggles of the community like on 'Chance', it'd be better if she at least understood the historical context. What I find interesting about this record is that Hynes can at least acknowledge that for as much as we'd like to define our own identities, on some level we're conscious of how other people view us and that can impact how we behave and present ourselves, even if we want to limit it. There's a running lyrical motif of 'You chose to fade away with him/ I chose to try and let you in', showing the alternate paths of assimilation to a norm versus exposing who you truly are and perhaps going alone, and when you have songs like 'Better Than Me' where he feels an odd jealousy for not fitting more easily into those strident causes, it does show nuance here.

Of course, all of this is wrapped and pushed through what you'd normally expect for an R&B album, and I'll say it's definitely an odd fit when you have these types of identity politics placed adjacent to more conventional relationship or hook-up jams, along with a load of religious subtext that feels far more scattershot than it should like on 'Augustine'. Arguably the biggest example of this content mishmash is 'Hands Up', where the hook seems to focus on police brutality and yet the verses paint a failing relationship where it seems like this girl is trying to save her lover from that fear - after all, she's not the only one in the world. But even there the connections are tenuous and I have to wonder how much more impact this record could have if it actually had focus or could merge its scattershot musings into a cohesive point. As much as I might like the chopped up samples of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ashlee Hayes or Venus Xtravaganza on black or feminist or trans identity, I find they're all taking more of a stand and cohesive point than Hynes can assemble, and while they aren't as glaringly out-of-place as the rap verses or Dave Longstreth's awful stab at soul on Cupid Deluxe, they can feel a bit distracting.

And all of this could have been helped if the vocal performances had more defined identity themselves, especially from Hynes himself. It's clear he idolizes artists like Prince and Michael Jackson, but he has never brought the level of rawness, tightness, and passion in his delivery that was so gripping about their delivery. Now he fits a little better against the smoother tones instead of the synth-funk of the last two records, but I'm not exactly enthused by his quivering stabs at soulful R&B, mostly because they're inconsistent. I actually really liked the opening multi-tracked vocals on 'By Ourselves', but that level of contemporary R&B harmonization doesn't show up more on this album, and more often than not - again - Hynes often places himself in a secondary role behind his female guest stars when he's not drowning himself in reverb or dropping into a baritone that doesn't really get there for me. Take Empress Of on 'Best To You', or Zuri Marley on 'Love Ya' or especially Nelly Furtado on 'Hadron Collider', which might just be one of my favourite songs here for its ethereal vibe and a vocal line that reminded me a little of Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation of all people! And I should mention Carly Rae Jepsen on 'Better Than Me'... she honestly sounds great, but I can't be the only one who found her more subtle delivery worked far better on her work with Hynes on her last album E.MO.TION than here.

And then we have instrumentation and production, most of which draws from the smoother, more liquid R&B tones that span the timeframe between early 80s funk and the easy listening material that tended to get forgotten in the rest of the decade... and I'll be blunt, this sound has never gripped me all that much, then or now. Hate to say it, but I don't have a lot of nostalgia for the glory days of Lionel Ritchie or MJ's more saccharine ballads, and that's what a lot of the downtempo material brings out, with sparse percussion and even sparser melodies that can't help but feel unfinished at points. That's not saying Hynes isn't a gifted melodic composer when he wants to be - his time working with other pop artists have given him more of an inclination towards pop sounds, and it's led to better hooks on tracks like the spacious, piano-touched 'Augustine' or the more bass-driven 'Hands Up' or the obvious MJ pastiche of 'But You' that treads up to the line of corniness with that hook. And there are definitely points where Hynes gets more creative instrumentally, with the ragged rattles of percussion and bass and flutters of muted melody with the cello on 'Best Of You', or the mournful calls of sax that flesh out the sound on 'With You' or 'Love Ya' or 'Squash Squash' or the tinkling pianos in the vast space of 'Hadron Collider' or the beautiful interlude on 'I Know'. But many of these instrumental ideas, just like the writing, feel far more scattershot than they should, and while they do flow together reasonably well, it can't help but feel a little indulgent when they don't hit real payoff. And that's not counting my consistent dislike for Hynes' awful synth choices, from the garish spurts against the otherwise slick funk of 'E.V.P.' or the blurry four note drone on the verses of 'Better Than Me', or the oily tones on 'I Know' which doesn't contrast well with the piano at all, or the offkey, Ariel Pink-esque haze of 'Desiree' that just feels slapdash, or the tinny fragments that spark through the opening 'Juicy 1-4' and don't fit at all, especially when the bass guitar builds more punch. And that's before we get to the closer 'Better Numb', with its fragmented acoustic guitar and offkey synth drone that breaks into a series of chopped samples that don't coalesce into anything at all.

In short... look, I get why people like this album and you can definitely make the argument that it's not for me and there will be an audience that'll relate to the subject matter more strongly. But again, I think it's the music that's been the consistent letdown of Blood Orange, an 80s pastiche that doesn't have the sense of scale, explosive tightness, and power of the R&B and soul I liked from that decade. And when you couple it with the lack of lyrical cohesion and instrumental indulgence, it can make this album feel like a slog to listen through. That said, this is enough nuance to the themes and enough agreeable hooks and tones on this record that I can like it without loving it, so I'm giving it a light 6/10 and really only a recommendation if you're a big fan of the quieter side of 80s R&B. Otherwise... eh, I can see what some people might find sexy about this, but I'm not sure it's for me.

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