In 2014, Devonte Hynes of Blood Orange wore a shirt to his set at Lollapalooza that listed the names of black people killed by police in recent years. Hours later, he claimed he and girlfriend Samantha Urbani were assaulted by security guards at the festival site. "The irony after my T-shirt and message this morning, we are in shock," he said on Twitter. "Why is this still happening? I just want to make music."
That's the tension that drives "Freetown Sound," Hynes' lovely but searing new album that weaves 2016 racial, sexual and political tension into an album of immaculate, Prince-inspired funk and R&B.
The stakes have never been higher for Hynes' songwriting. After a year when he released the singles "Sandra's Smile" and "Do You See My Skin Through the Flames" (each of which explicitly tackled racial injustice and the toll it takes on people's lives), "Freetown Sound" delves even deeper into the ramifications of societal cruelty.
"Augustine" uses the Catholic saint's writings to mine the tension between religious yearning, the disconnection of immigrants and the shock of Trayvon Martin's death. "Hands Up" alludes to the Michael Brown shooting but turns back toward the intimate, the primal fear for a loved one's safety in the face of state-sanctioned violence.
The music that accompanies all this is buoyant and pristine. Hynes has become one of pop's smartest and most tasteful producers, but he saved all his best lockstep guitar lines, misty keyboards and falsetto runs for this, the defining LP of his career. Hynes, a former Londoner, is a New Yorker now, but as the fallout from Brexit reveals ugly racial resentments in his home country, it's hard to imagine a better record to put on and imagine better, freer days to come.