Review Summary: "Teach yourself about your brother, 'Cause there's no one else but you."
Finding one’s identity is the hardest part of adolescence. Growing up, a person’s identity is largely shaped by their family. When it’s time to fly the coop for a more independent life, one must struggle to define oneself anew. Freetown Sound, Blood Orange’s latest album from the Domino label, weaves airy vocals, lush instrumentals, and infectious hooks into a beautiful story of a person searching for identity.
Freetown Sound is a tapestry exploring a black person’s quest for identity, and the album relies on spoken-word segments for each vignette. Opening track “By Ourselves” features a poem by Ashlee Haze about popular culture’s effect on black identity:
“Right now, there are a million black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them.”
Haze spoke about the search’s beginning, but also revealed the end in an address to popular rapper Missy Elliot, who helped the speaker find herself:
“Dear Missy… I did not grow up to be you / But I did grow up to be me / And to be in love with who this woman is.”
“Chance” dives into the past to understand black identity. The track opened with a recording of rapper KRS-One arguing that Shem, a figure in the book of Genesis, was an ancestor to African peoples. “Love Ya” seeks the present definition of “black” with a 2015 recording of black journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who explained how he scrutinizes his appearance daily to negate the stereotype that black men are dangerous:
“How I was gonna wear my backpack, was I gonna strap it over one shoulder or two shoulders" How was I gonna cock my baseball hat"”
The album demonstrates that identity isn’t just shaped by our role models or ancestors, it’s also influenced by how society perceives us.
The protagonist faces this dilemma in “But You” and emerges with the moral of the album. “Teach yourself about your brother,” he sings, “‘Cause there’s no one else but you / You are special in your own way.” He finds that he needn’t let his race define him--everyone is wonderfully unique and responsible for learning about other people.
Freetown Sound is more than one man’s quest to find himself. It’s also gorgeous music. The production was consistent from beginning to end, employing soothing echoed vocals, synth lines of every distortion, and well-placed, four-on-the-floor drum tracks. It’s worth noting that many tracks held sonic fingerprints of Prince: “E.V.P.” featured a synth hook that could’ve been lifted straight from a discarded 1999 track, and “Love Ya” was subtly reminiscent of the unapologetically hypnotic and seductive “The Beautiful Ones.” The ghost of Prince, with his one-of-a-kind character and unabashed message of love, is welcome on an album about embracing uniqueness.
Freetown Sound isn’t a perfect album. Its weakness is its versatility. The album’s sustained, hook-driven sound is perfect for almost any setting, yet it was easy for me to latch on to the melodies and miss the message. I played the album while studying, showering, commuting, and sleeping before I simply listened with my headphones and finally understood the message.
The best way to listen to this album is with a good pair of speakers or headphones. Earbuds and laptop or phone speakers will let the drums overpower the lyrics and obfuscate the sonic nuance. Listen with as minimal background noise as possible.
I discovered this album as a third-year college student in a struggle to find identity. I was sure where I’d been, but agonizing over where I should go. Freetown Sound’s story of one person’s search for identity gave me comfort that I may be unique, but I’m not alone. I hope it gives you that comfort too.