Q-Tip once said, “Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.” The year was 1991 and hip-hop was interpreted as a subgenre of pop. These days, the annotation has flipped, with black artists dominating nearly every genre. Take Devontè ”Dev” Hynes of Blood Orange, who’s crafted a timeless groove of pop-funk with synth, R&B and jazzy influences. His alluring aurora has helped him create tunes for artists like Solange (“Losing You”,) FKA Twigs (“Hours”) and even bubblegum pop starlet, Carly Rae Jepsen (“All That.”)
The singer-songwriter is a master at painting the stories of emotion and love, as shown on his previous projects, Coastal Grooves and Cupid Deluxe, but this time around, Hynes takes a trip to the world of woke with Freetown Sound. Named after his father’s hometown in Sierra Leone, the album pulls major inspiration from today’s modern heroes of the Black Lives Matter movement like Ta-Nehisi Coates and nods to those who navigated the same waves in hip-hop’s early days like De La Soul and KRS One. When asked about the creation of the album, a calm and peaceful Hynes labels the process. “It’s been more like compilations for me,” he said. “When I look at the album, I see them as compilations, like, all the things I’ve done in that two year period.”
Even if you’ve lived under a rock for the past two years, the hardness of the soil will give you a clue of what’s been going on. Questions about race relations and police reforms have continued to rise following the deaths of unarmed African-Americans in Florida, Chicago, New York and more by the hands of police officers. As black bodies were perishing, others were marching for answers. The movement raised questions of being black in the world today, a notion or clapback Hynes wanted to tackle on Freetown Sound. “You know, with experience, none of us have any idea how someone should be in their life or who they even are,” he explains. “I’ve been called ‘too black,’ I’ve been called ‘not black enough.’ I’ve been called not black enough for people. I’ve been called out for being too queer. I have been bullied by people in the queer community for not being queer enough or the ‘right way’ that I should be.” Hynes isn’t looking to be a champion for the movement, but if Beyonce’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly albums stand with it, Freetown Sound is the mixtape that defines it.
His collaborations with Empress Of, Debbie Harry and Nelly Furtado (hey stranger) help tell stories of triumph and love, while looking for something more in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On “Augustine,” Hynes questions a disconnect some have when it comes to justice. “Tell me did you lose your son? Tell me did you lose your love? Cry and burst my deafness, while Trayvon falls asleep.” As the album continues with breaks of interviews from Coates and Vince Staples, it also samples documentaries like Paris Is Burning and Black Is…Black Ain’t. It’s clear Hynes finds inspiration from the best of places. Just one look at his Instagram page reveals his love runs just as deep for James Baldwin as it does for Desiigner’s “Timmy Turner” record.
Tapping into the consciousness also drives into the battle we have with love. On “Best To You,” a stirring and soothing melody stands behind the lyrics, “Part of me is faking/Faking it all just for fun/Part of me is breaking/Breaking apart when you come.” Overall, it’s a pop album that stands apart from the rest, a world Hynes is used to.
VIBE spoke to Hynes about the magic Blood Orange has, the lessons he’s learned from Prince and the friends he’s lost along his musical journey. Check it out below.
VIBE: I really loved all the themes of Freetown Sound. Especially the incorporation of today and yesterday’s black history. What inspired you to add Ashlee Haze’s “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliot Poem),” at the end of “By Ourselves?”
Blood Orange: It was everything that I was trying to say in that song. I learned about the poem and the song already existed. For the ending, I had the arrangement, the horns, the cellos. It was everything I was trying to say in the song.
I saw on your Instagram that Freetown Sound was a clapback. What is it a clapback to?
(Laughs) It’s basically a clapback for everyone that thinks they know how someone should be. Because, you know, with experience, none of us have any idea how someone should be in their life or who they even are. I’ve been called “too black”, I’ve been called “not black enough.” I’ve been called not black enough for people. I’ve been called out for being too queer. I have been bullied by people in the queer community for not being queer enough or the “right way” that I should be. I’ve had enough of all of the s**t and I turn 31 in December…
Thank You. It’s kind of weird. I’ve lost a lot of friends this year and basically the reason why that happened is because I’ve sort of started standing up for myself. In standing up for myself, I think people did not expect it because they’ve taken me and who I am for granted. I think we take a lot of people for granted. I don’t think I am a special person, but I think we all are in general. A lot of times, if someone’s around all the time they’re taken for granted, but if they suddenly change or do things differently or stand up for themselves people get a little confused, unhappy and mad. So that’s kind of what a lot of the things on the album deal with especially where I’m at right now personally, because I just can’t deal with that anymore.
You lose things and people, but you’re coming in to your own and hitting the next point in your life. It’s gonna be different than the last, so I get that. I like how you have the Prince symbol in the photo. What does he mean to you?
Well, the reason why I mainly put that in is because when he died, it was unsettling to me. He’s been a big influence of mine. He was such an influence and I’ve always had issues with virtual media tributes of people and I didn’t do one when he passed. It didn’t make sense. I got asked to perform a lot of Prince songs and I said no to all of them. To me, the biggest thing you can do for an influence or if you are paying tribute to someone, especially Prince is to be yourself to the fullest and be unapologetic to the fullest. That’s what he did for me. My tribute is in being the most me that I can ever be. That is my tribute. Living my life.
I really love the name of the project, Freetown Sound, and I also love the artwork. Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind that?
The photo is by Deana Lawson. It’s actually from her book, “Contact Sheet” which came out in 2009 from an exhibition that she did. It’s kind of funny because I don’t think people even realize that my album covers are not just me taking a photo and latching to it. If people knew how deep and thought out it is, it’s pretty wild. The photo for the second album was inspired by a book called “42”, which is all about Times Square from the ‘70s ‘80s, ‘90s.
It was very intentional, as was this one. I got in touch with Deana and played the album a couple of times and we’d speak. I would play her songs and talk about the music and what it means to me and what her photos mean to me. We would talk about life, art, what is happening and how it relates to the black culture and black people, especially with these feelings we’re going through. Recently, we’ve been talking about collaborating later with video stuff and the more I kept looking at her photos, it was kind of looking at one photo that meant so much to me in terms of wanting a connection and being isolated and having your roots and influences around, just black love. It was just the perfect subject for me.
You feel that in the cover, so I love that. What does black love mean to you?
Black love to me is just really loving yourself and not being afraid of yourself and feeling sorry for yourself in any way, shape or form. It’s loving your brother and sister, and being as unapologetic as you can be. We’ve been made to feel as if we have to apologize for many things in our life. So it’s just shedding all of that and just saying, “This is who I am. This is who we are. This is what it is. Take care of all that.”
Let’s be ourselves, but let’s be together. There’s a lot of self-education going on right now. How do you feel about it?
It’s important. I kind of learned everything. Everything in my life has been pretty much self-taught. It’s the only way it can be. I feel like I need to know everything that has happened and is happening, otherwise I have no idea what the present is or what the future is. I feel like you can’t have any real true sense of today if you didn’t know about the day before. It’s very true to me and it’s funny because things get forgotten. I don’t know if that’s something people think about. With Muhammad Ali, people forget that there was a point where he was the most hated man in America. He was so f***in unapologetic in everything. He was so important. He said “I’m Not Going To Vietnam.” That’s just how he was. People said, “What do you mean? It’s a job.” He said “I’m not going. Why would I do that?” That’s just revolutionary. It’s very revolutionary. He kept his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. because the government did kill Martin Luther King. That’s a thing that is on record now, that the government did it. It’s just crazy. People forget the history, what these people did and how crazy it was. I actually remember the stuff.
On top of “Desiree,” “By Ourselves,” and all the other songs on the album, “Best Of You” is kind of my favorite. Who’s vocals are on that song?
That is a girl named Lorely Rodriguez who has a project called Empress Of. She’s amazing. She’s a good friend of mine. She really kind of saved that song because that was actually an instrumental I’ve made that I was going to scrap. She was at her apartment and was into it.
What are you hoping your listeners and fans get from this project?
I guess a sense of peace and happiness and some unity and that you won’t be alone. If someone somewhere got a sense of warmth and peace from it, then that’s more than anything that I could ask for.