Message music gets a bad rap. At its best, such music is invigorating, jarring in all the right ways, even if it’s rough at the edges — perhaps because it’s so rough and certain in its purpose. At its worst, message music is an indigestible hash of poetry and jargon.
This is something to ponder while you’re listening to the new Blood Orange album, Freetown Sound, which singer, songwriter, and producer Dev Hynes has dedicated to “everyone told they’re not BLACK enough, too BLACK, too QUEER, not QUEER the Right way, the underappreciated.” For those fans in desperate search of proper representation in the public imagination, Freetown Sound is Hynes’s “clapback,” as it were. On Freetown Sound, Dev Hynes is a proud and competent conductor of queer theory and black thought — and a brilliant and selfless musician, at that.
That’s not to say or suggest that Freetown Sound is theoretical to a fault. In fact, the album is figurative in its illustrations of angst; the songs are all rather impressionistic, and elegant, in their depictions of romance (“Best to You,” “Hadron Collider”) and mortality (“Hands Up,” “Hadron Collider”). The many interludes on Freetown Sound provide the explicit terms for Hynes’s topline concerns; Boogie Down Productions samples, spoken-word excerpts, and snippets of the drag-scene documentary Paris Is Burning render the language of the modern civil rights movement plain. The songs themselves are all a bit loftier, more abstract, at turns romantic and disenfranchised. Hynes is unambiguous in his love of black women and all who have loved them; that much is clear. But the most striking moments of this album are perhaps its most subtle gestures.
There’s a song here called “But You.” Over keys, Hynes sings, “If it’s true why am I so faithful to the girl / tryna walk slowly herself / not to scare her off.” It’s a lovely song. I might have guessed that it was a love song, or else a hymn of infatuation. Hynes, however, has already dispelled that deduction in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s actually about walking down a street,” Hynes says, “and me trying to work out what to do, say, if there’s like a young blond girl in front of me, and we’re the only ones on the street, and it’s me trying not to scare her walking — trying to work out if I should cross the road, if I should walk faster and try to speed past — but it’s kind of told through this shield.”
There’s a term for this sort of encounter, as described by journalists and academics. In his 1994 autobiography, Parallel Time, the journalist Brent Staples coined the phrase “whistling Vivaldi” to describe the behavior of black and white pedestrians passing one another on an otherwise sparse sidewalk. “He describes being a graduate student, an African American graduate student at the University of Chicago, walking down the street dressed as a student and realizing that his mere presence was making whites uncomfortable,” recounts Claude Steele, an academic who wrote a book about the psychological underpinnings of Staples’s phrase. “He learned how to whistle Vivaldi to deflect that stereotype.”
“But You” sounds like such an encounter: fast and shameful diplomacy at a glance. And yet the song sounds nothing like a thinkpiece. Instead, the lyrics of “But You” are a peaceable stream of consciousness, a lullaby sung in the style of Michael Jackson. You are special in your own way. This inner peace falters at the top of the second verse, when Hynes sings, “Can you see the nigger in my face?” Unsettled, I wondered whether I’d misheard the lyric, whether he sung “naked” instead; I ran it back repeatedly. And so this song about misunderstanding provokes some fear of misunderstanding in the listener.
A moment such as this, on an album such as this, serves as a counterpoint to the Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, last year’s biggest catalyst for a popular reconsideration of black music’s relationship to black power politics. On TPAB, Kendrick is loud, explicit, and unrelenting in defense of his black ego, the subject of state-sponsored violence as well as spiritual tumult. Hynes, 30, says he looks up to Lamar. While both artists’ albums lace black pride with self-doubt, the ’80s retro R&B crazing of Freetown Sound is never so didactic. “But You” isn’t loud, but it’s challenging.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Starchild sings lead vocals on “But You.” Dev Hynes is the singer.