i-D:
Devonté Hynes

Photography Jalan and Jibril, Styling Carlos Nazario

You can find finesse in Freetown Sound, the third album under Devonté Hynes’ alias as Blood Orange, not only within the 17 care­fully crafted tracks, but also the ambi­ent sounds that con­nect each com­po­si­tion. Collected every­where from solo after­noons spent at Washington Square Park to mid­night skates down­town, and pen­sive day­time strolls in his home of New York City, an acute ear can pick up the deeper mean­ing in the middle of two songs.

It really makes me happy you say that,” says Dev as we talk about the tac­tile qual­ity of the record sat in a quiet book­shop in NY’s Soho neigh­bour­hood. I approached Freetown Sound, much like an old school hip-hop record, going in and find­ing sam­ples and words and link­ing all the dif­fer­ent parts together. It’s so much about the inspi­ra­tions of these sounds; par­tic­u­larly in regards to moving cities; the things that creep into your ear, how they can mean one thing even if they are from another. I wanted it to have this feel­ing that the music is from another place and can have a dual mean­ing.”

30-year-old Hynes knows a thing or two about trans­plant­ing from one place to another. Born in Houston, Texas and raised on the fringes of London, before set­tling in New York ten years ago, being a musi­cian wasn’t part of his plan. An avid foot­baller, Dev played the sport with enough fer­vour to con­sider going pro but his dis­taste for the people that played saw him leave it behind. He had always dab­bled in music, muscling in on his sister’s piano lessons, teach­ing him­self the cello, drums and bass guitar while muck­ing around in bands through­out school. Music was just this thing I liked, that I could do and I cared about but it wasn’t like I grew up play­ing my guitar in my room,” he reflects. But his talent was self-evi­dent and after a brief spell in dance-punk outfit Test Icicles in the mid 00s and an album release under the sobri­quet Lightspeed Champion in 2008, he became Blood Orange, releas­ing 2011’s Coastal Grooves, fol­lowed by Cupid Deluxe in 2013 and in June this year, Freetown Sound, his most impres­sive work yet.

Photography Jalan and Jibril, Styling Carlos Nazario

The album, named after the cap­i­tal city of his father’s native Sierra Leone, is a cacoph­ony of melodies that in its 58 min­utes takes you on a heady jour­ney. From imag­in­ing his father’s expe­ri­ence being born in 30s West Africa, to explor­ing racial ten­sions (Hands Up), gender (Desireé via Paris Is Burning’s Venus Xtravaganza), rep­re­sen­ta­tion and iden­tity (By Ourselves) and dis­place­ment (Augustine). And sure, Dev may have enlisted the help of acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, poet Ashlee Haze and film­maker Marlon Riggs — all promi­nent voices in cur­rent black social issues — in the album’s cre­ation, but Freetown Sound was not con­ceived as a response to America’s cur­rent fraught race rela­tions. It wasn’t writ­ten as a polit­i­cal state­ment. It was funny, when I first start­ing doing press for the album, the first ques­tion would always be, so is this a Black Lives Matter’ album?’ and I was like, what’? When I think about Kendrick’s album, [To Pimp a Butterfly] it’s clear what he is saying. I’m obvi­ously saying things that are inti­mate on the album but it’s inter­est­ing that people can create what they want to with the idea. I guess it’s the timing of when it was released too…”

Photography Jalan and Jibril, Styling Carlos Nazario

The start­ing point of the album began two years prior with the track EVP, fea­tur­ing close friend Bea1991 and Debbie Harry. I actu­ally worked on that song for an Eckhaus Latta show, and worked on it up until I mixed my album. I kept on find­ing things I needed to change, I have never had that in my life,” he explains. I never go into a studio think­ing I have to make an album. I just write every now and then and try to create a mood.” Hadron Collider, a dream­like opus, was writ­ten col­lab­o­ra­tively with its guest star Nelly Furtado, then By Ourselves and Hands Up were other tracks he crafted early on in the process of piec­ing the album together, putting pen to paper and writ­ing down lyrics instead of his favoured freestyle approach to lyric writ­ing, a response to the pres­sure he felt from the out­side world. It was the first time people were saying oh you are making an album’ and I think, look­ing back, that really got to me. There was the para­dox of some­thing being highly per­sonal but know­ing there was an expec­ta­tion.”

Photography Jalan and Jibril, Styling Carlos Nazario

Born into the school of Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Dev is often, and rather indo­lently described as a bohemian. It’s a narrow depic­tion,” he laughs. Yet he acknowl­edges that roman­ti­cally lis­ten­ing to his musi­cal greats and grow­ing up out­side of the United States has ingrained in him a sort of wide-eyed voyeurism and wonder about the coun­try he now calls home, one that comes from being brought up some­where else, I think it was James Baldwin who talked about going away from a place to really be able to see it. I know I would feel dif­fer­ently and be a dif­fer­ent person if I grew up here, I just couldn’t imag­ine all the ways…”

Definitively Freetown Sound is a sum of all the parts of Dev’s life in the past two years; some planned, he’s also rev­elled in what can come from the unin­ten­tional and the impro­vised, wrought from per­sonal expe­ri­ence but bestowed upon the audi­ence and left for you to draw your own inter­pre­ta­tions. I know music is my job now but I still make it exactly the same way as I did when I was 14. I don’t read reviews and the idea that anyone makes music for public cri­tique is crazy to me. When people say that they like my music, it’s a gen­uine shock and inter­est on my part. I make my music so much for me, even with live shows, they aren’t the most nat­ural thing to me… I have to put way more thought in than most. I think that’s why I haven’t toured in five years.”

Photography Jalan and Jibril, Styling Carlos Nazario

A few days later, Dev brings an audi­ence to a pin-drop silence at an impromptu yet inti­mate gig at Greenpoint’s Manhattan Inn. Whether he shies away from shows or not, it’s clear, he’s got every­one under his spell.

Photography Jalan and Jibril, Styling Carlos Nazario