[Photo Credit: Kirsten Spruch]
2016 has been quite the year. Racking up cute little nicknames like trash fire, dumpster fire, pile of shit, apocalypse now, or what-the-fuck-is-going-on has been no small feat. With more political and social turmoil than anyone wished or expected to see, an unnervingly large portion of our country is undoubtedly feeling alienated, marginalized, and disregarded as this year comes to a close. Beyond feelings of exclusion, there is additional dejection, fear, anger, and utter disbelief. This year has given many people the impression that there may really be no one looking out for them. In such a vulnerable and incredibly difficult emotional space, people need reminders that someone out there cares. There is always someone
sending love, positivity, and support - 2016 is no different. As bad as this year has been, it has nonetheless brought us some beautifully important works of art - works like Blood Orange
's album Freetown Sound
, released back in June.
The man behind Blood Orange, Devonte Hynes, proved once again his incredible artistic and emotional versatility. The album seems just as much a beckoning for others to express and accept themselves as it is an exercise in Hynes' expression of self. The very first track, "By Ourselves," puts forth the narrative of marginalization with a solemn verse only to be followed by an incredibly powerful piece of spoken-word poetry. The excerpt from Ms. Ashlee Haze's "For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)," a frenzied ode to empowerment for women of color, sets the tone of the album in declaring "right now there are a million black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them." In releasing the album, Hynes explained on his (now-deleted) Instagram that it was for everyone who has ever been made to feel like they were "not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way." Freetown Sound
is far from pandering or covering all its bases, it simply has a capacity for universal support and love towards the marginalized. The heart of the album, whether intended or not, lies in the refrain of "But You," when Hynes croons "you are special in your own way." It rings true long after the spacy vocals and dynamic instrumentals of Freetown Sound
have faded away.
Hynes' work on Freetown Sound
also showcased an extensive knack for collaboration and broad genre influences. Just as this music calls out to those struggling with identity and synthesizes the many narratives of marginalization into messages of universal love, Hynes seems to find a universal soul in music. Of course, he moved through his own array of musical identities before coming to be Blood Orange. In his earliest years in music, Hynes channeled his energy into Test Icicles, a rough-edged and short-lived three piece dance-punk band. Soon after their breakup, you could find Hynes in Omaha, where he produced two solo indie rock albums as Lightspeed Champion. Finally, by 2011, Hynes became the act we know and love today. Blood Orange takes on electronica, R&B, funk, and dance with a tinge of the 80s threaded through it all. Above all, though, Hynes seems to defy genre instead of warranting a list of genres and classifications. Blood Orange carries a legacy of all of these genres that influenced Hynes, but it also puts forth its own legacy of fluid expression. Hynes makes extensive use of other voices in his work, specifically women, to express emotions he has said he cannot express with his own voice. He's also built up a substantial catalogue of writing and production work for other artists, including Solange, FKA Twigs, and Tinashe. What do we make of such a dynamic and diverse career and approach? It's a simple lesson that Hynes creativity is seemingly impossible to stifle, and certainly hard to pin down.
If this is all we can absorb from looking at the spread of Hynes' career, it's one extremely important and relevant lesson. Freetown Sound
is almost like Kanye West's The Life of Pablo
in a way - wait, give me a second to explain before you jump down my throat. Kanye called TLOP
a "living, breathing, changing creative expression" in response to criticisms when he made changes to the album after its release. Yes, that was probably a cop out of epic proportions, but it remains his work and his decision to change it. Freetown Sound
hasnt had any post-release edits, but it does contain that same dynamic nature that comes from a long career with many stylistic changes and a host of varying collaborators. Like TLOP
, the album is a collage of styles and voices and so many different topics that it's near impossible to fail at connecting with some piece of it. And, of course, Hynes has just a little
less inflammatory language and controversial edge to his work. Where Kanye has lost fans and supporters, Dev has only reeled even more in with a wealth of love and understanding.
speaks to so many levels of personal identity and emotion, from love and loss to race, sexuality, and gender. There's no singular experience of navigating these issues, just like there's no singular experience of hearing an album. We interpret these things for ourselves, and music can be one of the most important sites of that interpretation. Hynes' work is appreciated because he is able to piece together such broad influences and experiences to form a cohesive product without limiting any of its universal appeal and interpretation. Freetown Sound
refuses to shy away from the issues that are so important to marginalized groups in our current cultural climate - it speaks out. But instead of seething with anger (which is no less valid, but can sometimes be less productive) the music calls out with an earnest plea for inclusivity. Freetown Sound
is the kind of work that really does give hope in a time when people everywhere are in need of it. Dev Hynes does what he can to help others better themselves, and that's an incredible thing for an artist to be devoted to. 2016 was rough, but it wasn't wasted. If we can learn from Hynes to put energy into support and inclusivity, we can hopefully have a positive impact on years to come.