These last few years have seen an abundance of excellent albums that encapsulate what it means to be a Black person in modern times, from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah to Kamasi Washington’s The Epic to Maxwell’s blackSUMERS’night to Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. What Devonté Hynes has done with his Blood Orange project ranks up there with the best not only of this era, but of all time. His latest release Freetown Sound is an empowering record not only for the Black community, but for women of all colours and the LGBTQ public as well. While Hynes might not be the biggest household name in modern RnB music, you’ve heard his songs all over the radio, albeit you just didn’t know that he wrote them. Having written for Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange, Jesse Ware, FKA twigs and more. Not coincidentally every single artist he has written for has been female, a topic that we’ll get into further into the review.
Freetown Sound is unapologetically a feminist anthem album and to start the show off he came out to the spoken word intro By Ourselves, which has Ashlee Haze a black female. She pleads with the listener the hardships others like her have faced by not having anyone to look up to in the media, no one that looks like them. The largely female crowd roared with cheers at every pro-feminist line and it was clearly indicative on how the night would turn out. Hynes took to center stage and played Augustine playing riffs on the guitar every once in a while, but the main eye catching feature of his show is his amazing dance moves. While musically he takes his cues from Michael Jackson and Prince, his dance moves have direct lineage from those icons as well. He twirls, moonwalks, pop n locks, juts his forearms out and busts out moves that a dance teacher would be proud to get their students to even move as freely as he does. His battery pack popped out from the back of his pants and he couldn’t even stay still as a technician tried to clip it back in place.
There were two large white scrims set up to project videos, for Chance they were turned off and Hynes went behind them to dance as backlit lights cast his shadow twenty feet high like Prince did at the Super Bowl in 2007. For EVP, a track that features guest vocals from another famed New Yorker transplant Debbie Harry, was a funkadelic number that had Hynes play the cello that featured Chic style guitars. The crowd was bumping and grinding like the Danforth was transported and turned into a 1980’s discotheque. There are numerous spoken word poems on Freetown Sound and most of them were used as transitions as the band geared up to play the next song. The whole evening felt more like we were watching performance art instead of a concert between the balletic dancing, the poetry, the video projections and the funky/jazzy/soulful backing band and singers, which all added up to an experience like no other.
Switching to play some older material You’re Not Good Enough from 2013’s Cupid Deluxe saw Hynes go full on 1999 with guitar playing so sexy it’s hard to not imagine the Purple One reincarnated into the Brit on stage. The show switched up almost song by song slow and quiet songs and then at the drop of a hat full on night club. On one of the most overt political songs on his album, Hands Up, his backing singers and horn player would raise their arms every time the chorus came around. The video projections spent most of the night playing footage from 1970’s and 1980’s New York showing the grit and crime it was famous for before Rudolph Giuliani enacted his infamous broken windows initiative (that caused a whole new whack of problems like Stop and Frisk). This time period was marked by extreme poverty and hardship for both the Black community, but also those in Queer communities as well something that while has gotten better showcases that those struggles are just as timely today as they were three plus decades ago.
When he slowed things down considerably to play Better Numb alone on the keyboards you would have required keen ears to hear him playing at the best of times, but this incredibly intimate song was nearly ruined by the very loud chatter of the crowd. Some people hushed those around them, but it didn’t make a difference. The crowd was obnoxious in other ways shouting “I love you’s” to Hynes at quite inappropriate moments but he took it all in stride and enjoyed the audience’s participation singing along to his more popular songs.
On Best to You Hynes took back seat as both of his back up singers took turns singing lead vocals on the verses as he plunked away on the keyboard. Hynes who writes for plenty of other female musicians knows when a feminine voice is needed and lets the song breath. He sat off to the side acting more like a conductor than a solo artist showing the wide variety of skills he has. Near the end of the set he finally spoke to the crowd saying “Thank you very much, this is going to be my last song. Sing it if you know it” as he led into the encore of Uncle ACE from Cupid Deluxe, the gay anthem about homeless queer youths that are able to find a small community to help them survive through the night in New York’s subway tunnels. The scrims turned a blood orange colour and the song was played in a most uplifting fashion that an unassuming listener would never understand the meaning of it. Hynes bowed to the crowd and they cheered him on as he did one last dance solo to send us off into the night.