Freetown Sound is a diary, a scatter of thoughts from artist Dev Hynes about living life in the cultural margins of society: to be black, to be queer, to be unloved or feared without good reason. The album is, according to Hynes, one “for the under-appreciated” and somber synths and yearning saxophone runs confirm that description before a word is spoken. Wrenching lyrics only emphasize the heartbreak.
The opening track sees Hynes setting the stage for the stories and musings to come: “tried to love them,” he harmonizes with Ian Isiah and Ava Raiin, “They threw it in your face.” Whether for color, sexuality, or romance, the album is a collection of moments like this, where trying to love someone or something falls just short of enough. Those who love deeply, who yearn for connection and embrace are left alone, together—and so the song earns its title, “By Ourselves.”
In a way fitting, Hynes handles nearly all the writing, production, and performing on the album himself. He lives in a Prince-ian electronica, complete with funky guitar licks and vaguely feminine vocals; the songs hover between genres, displaced like their subjects. The opening track introduces that sense of displacement as well: poet Ashlee Haze cries out in a spoken word poem to close the song, “There are a million black girls just waiting/ To see someone who looks like them.” It’s what Hynes, in all his meditations across Freetown Sound, waits for, too.
The album is named for his father’s hometown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and the next two songs (“Augustine” and “Chance”) deal heavily with the challenges of transition—his father’s from Africa to Europe (“My father was a young man/ My mother off the boat”), his from Europe to America (“My eyes were fresh at 21/ Bruised, but still afloat”), and more broadly the uncomfortable gray area we all live in while trying to sculpt our place and purpose (“All I ever wanted was a chance for myself”). Each song’s synths drone in a hollow soundscape, Hynes’ voice trailing off in echoes like thoughts mulled over as he drifts asleep.
That drift dips into dream as “Chance” flows unbroken into “Best to You,” Freetown’s clear highpoint. Lorely Rodriguez (the brilliantly talented woman behind Empress Of) cuts through with bright clarity and warmth to sing about unacknowledged love. Through a shiny chorus of bongos, she pleads to a disinterested lover: “And I can’t be the girl you want but I can be the thing you/ Throw away.” Desperate, lonely, ignored, the line, as is characteristic of the album, offers no lesson or takeaway, but rather a fleeting moment in the shoes—and pain—of someone whose value slips past unconsidered.
But for whatever depths the subject matter reaches, Freetown is definitively not a moping ballad or pity party. Hynes approaches all of these themes with a curiosity not so present in grief. He wonders about the states more than he broods in them and the music as a result seldom sulks. “E.V.P.” bounces like a Bobby Brown classic; “But You” floats in a smoky 80s haze despite its tougher, racially-fueled subject matter (“Can you see the nigga in my face?”); “Hadron Collider” receives an angelic assist from Nelly Furtado in one of the album’s slower reveries.
What Freetown Sound amounts to is tricky to pin down. Its themes and undertones are dense—Hynes wanders through some of life’s thornier bushes with some of life’s thornier characters. What he’s looking for, if anything, is obscure. What you come away with after listening is less an answer than the beginning of a conversation, one about heartbreak, about the other, about how it feels to be different and to live with different’s consequences. He leaves us with questions: “And does your mother know you cry?/ Do you ever think, boy?/ Or does it just feel better numb?”