Used to be the arrival of an album big enough to contend for year’s best was an event: something a record company spent time setting up scrupulously, seeding advance stories, securing media coverage to whet anticipation and fuel desire. Something you marked on the calendar, even. But now we live in the age of Beyoncé — more properly, the age of “Beyoncé,” the name of the “video album” that artist dropped without warning in December 2013.
The tide has turned, clearly. The year’s biggest albums show up unannounced, sometimes shrouded in intentional mystery, like Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” in April and Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” in May. Sneak-drop releases from Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and James Blake prove that the old rules no longer apply.
It’s hard to imagine that Dev Hynes — whose third album as Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound,” is among this year’s most extraordinary creations — was banking on that kind of buzz when he broke curfew on his LP, releasing it three days before its July 1 due date. More likely Hynes simply was eager to get his wildly ambitious creation out into the world — damn the consequences.
That he had an album so quietly revolutionary in him doesn’t come as such a surprise, given his rapid trajectory. From his brittle dance-punk in Test Icicles to the cozier indie-rock he made as Lightspeed Champion, Hynes has accrued layers of sophistication. Blood Orange has seen him tip the scales toward R&B and funk awash in electronics, and incorporating disparate guests like an indie-film auteur. Carly Rae Jepsen, Nelly Furtado, and Debbie Harry occupy significant spots on “Freetown Sound,” as do, via choice samples, poet Ashlee Haze and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Less a thematic cycle than “Lemonade,” Hynes’s album — its title a reference to his father’s Sierra Leone hometown — compiles contemplations of race, gender, sexuality, and desire. His references are seldom specific (though his samples often are), yet “Freetown Sound” demands to be considered within the context of its times: from Black Lives Matter and the latest police shootings to Leslie Jones being virtually lynched on Twitter this week.
Marginalized viewpoints surface repeatedly. On “By Ourselves,” Haze loudly praises Missy Elliott for outlier inspiration. “Desirée” recycles thoughts about sexual commerce spoken by the late transgender performer Venus Xtravaganza in the film “Paris Is Burning.”
Charged stuff, yet Hynes never resorts to polemic. Global and personal politics mix and mingle, animated with gospel, funk, and hip-hop modes and moves. What results is an album to live with, and to live inside: engrossing and necessary.
NINE MORE BEST ALBUMS OF 2016 (SO FAR)
Anohni, “Hopelessness”: Shedding prior chamber-pop decorum, this initimable singer weaponized electronica on a subversively seductive protest album.
Beyoncé, “Lemonade”: The extent to which this cycle of songs about betrayal and self-discovery may have been drawn from life pales next to its electric potency and majesty.
James Blake, “The Colour in Anything”: Post-breakup self-absorption has rarely sounded more inviting than on this LP, which showed up abruptly, demanding extended engagement.
David Bowie, “Blackstar”: An art-pop chameleon to the very end, Bowie enlisted a lithe jazz combo to assert his will on this, his final testament.
Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”: Having hijacked Kanye West’s uneven “The Life of Pablo,” Chance stepped up with a charismatic clutch of gospel-steeped hip-hop.
Maxwell, “blackSUMMERS’night”: Among the truest successors to the late, great Prince, Maxwell matched romantic ruminations to pitch-perfect soul settings.
Parker Millsap, “The Very Last Day”: Singing with a penetrating quaver, Millsap suffused arresting vignettes about marginalized characters with gravity and empathy.
Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”: After disappearing completely for a few days to set the stage, Radiohead returned with sumptuous contemplations of maturity and loss.
Esperanza Spalding, “Emily’s D+Evolution”: Untethered from her jazz-virtuoso status, Spalding showed explosive creativity in this offbeat funk gem.Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.