Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound” (Domino Recording Co.)
In 2014, Devonte Hynes of Blood Orange wore a shirt to his set at Lollapalooza that listed the names of black people killed by police in recent years. Hours later, he claimed he and girlfriend Samantha Urbani were assaulted by security guards at the festival site. “The irony after my T-shirt and message this morning, we are in shock,” he said on Twitter. “Why is this still happening? I just want to make music.”
That’s the tension that drives “Freetown Sound,” Hynes’ lovely but searing new album that weaves 2016 racial, sexual and political tension into an album of immaculate, Prince-inspired funk and R&B.
The stakes have never been higher for Hynes’ songwriting. After a year when he released the singles “Sandra’s Smile” and “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames” (each of which explicitly tackled racial injustice and the toll it takes on people’s lives), “Freetown Sound” delves even deeper into the ramifications of societal cruelty.
“Augustine” uses the Catholic saint’s writings to mine the tension between religious yearning, the disconnection of immigrants and the shock of Trayvon Martin’s death. “Hands Up” alludes to the Michael Brown shooting but turns back toward the intimate, the primal fear for a loved one’s safety in the face of state-sanctioned violence.
The music that accompanies all this is buoyant and pristine. Hynes has become one of pop’s smartest and most tasteful producers, but he saved all his best lockstep guitar lines, misty keyboards and falsetto runs for this, the defining LP of his career. Hynes, a former Londoner, is a New Yorker now, but as the fallout from Brexit reveals ugly racial resentments in his home country, it’s hard to imagine a better record to put on and imagine better, freer days to come.
August Brown, Los Angeles Times
Maxwell, “blackSUMMERS’night” (Columbia)
It’s been seven years since Maxwell released an album; an eternity in pop music years, but a business-as-usual timeline for this veteran soul singer.
The 43-year-old artist has continually risked obscurity by issuing just five albums over two decades. But these long dry spells have only added to Maxwell’s allure and pumped up expectations for each new, often late, arrival.
The long-awaited “blackSUMMERS’night” is the second installment in a planned trilogy that started with 2009’s “BLACKsummers’night” (note the lowercase/uppercase lettering has annoyingly changed from album to album) and it was once slated to arrive in 2012.
Though his new album doesn’t make the theme of the trilogy any clearer than his last album did, it ultimately doesn’t matter: Maxwell’s transcendent falsetto and the soulful jazz, electronic and soul arrangements need no cohesive story line to make them resonate.
The opening track “All the Ways Love Can Feel” is a five-minute-plus, sleek, beat-driven ballad that reminds us why Maxwell is one of the only artists who should be allowed to pay tribute to Prince (as he did at the recent BET Awards).
His voice is fragile and heartbreaking one minute, seductive and velvety the next. Though age is the enemy of many singers, Maxwell has clearly become a more complex vocalist since arriving as a neo-soul innovator in the mid-90s.
From “The Fall” to “Of All Kind” (there are 12 tracks in all here), his voice rides atop a fluid hybrid of ambient R&B, flecks of electronica, retro Al Green-era soul and horn-driven jazz arrangements that are as stealth and sultry and they are quirky and danceable. Notable jazz players on the album include Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold and Kenneth Whalum III.
The overall vibe of “blackSUMMERS’night” is warm, inviting and hypnotic, as if to say, “Settle in and get comfortable.” The next album may take a while.
Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times
• Kenny Chesney, “Some Town Somewhere”
• ScHoolboy Q, “Blank Face”
• The Avalanches, “Wildflower”