Tribute to folk on the fringe

Blood Orange's third album arrives in the inclement climate of the United States presidential elections, a timely dissection of the state of the Union, race and identity.

It comes months after the ground-breaking treatises on blackness, namely Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) and D'Angelo's Black Messiah (2014).

Still, Dev Hynes, the shape-shifting musician behind Blood Orange, is a slightly different creature.

Unlike the aforementioned Americans, he is an Englishman transplanted to New York, a son of Guyanese and Sierra Leonean parents, who continually wrestles with a sense of belonging.

His record, likewise, is not as obvious or proselytising as the other two albums. It feels subtler, more emollient, but no less powerful.

It is named after Freetown, his father's hometown and a nod to his African lineage. It continues Hynes' tribute to folk who live on the fringes of society, anyone who has been told he is "not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way".



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It is slippery in many ways. Tracks merge into one another, transmuting ceaselessly.

By Ourselves is a jazz-tinged gospel celebrating the greatness of black women. It is tagged with a spoken-word piece on hip-hop heroine Missy Elliott by Altanta's slam poet Ashlee Haze: "I did not grow up to be you/But I did grow to be me/And be in love with who this woman is."

Other strong women make their presence felt.

Empress Of's Lorely Rodriguez trade vocal duties with Hynes in Best To You, a sprightly anti-ballad where the gender tug of war is negotiated within a pop format. "I can't be the girl you want, but I can be the thing you throw away," she sings, to which, he pleads: "Do you really want to?"

Blondie's Debbie Harry turns up on E.V.P. (which stands for East Village Press), a rubbery funk number in which the rock icon echoes his words like a fairy godmother watching over him: "Do you ever think, boy?/Or does it just feel better alone?"

Two Canuck princesses lend sisterly support. Nelly Furtado pops up in Hadron Collider, a midnight R&B dirge with dreams of "a thousand halos in the sky", while Carly Rae Jepsen raps along with Hynes in Better Than Me, a bold confessional about "a weird jealousy" for "not feeling black enough or queer enough".

The personal and the communal come together in the stirring 1980s Michael Jackson-styled pop anthem Augustine, named after the African bishop Saint Augustine, and telling the stories of Hynes' parents' migration.

Making a reference to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen killed by a neighbourhood vigilante, he explains why he can never truly feel at home in the US: "Tell me did you lose your son?... Cry and burst my deafness, while Trayvon falls asleep."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Tribute to folk on the fringe'. Print Edition | Subscribe