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‘Freedom Highway’ review: Rhiannon Giddens’ gut-wrenching storytelling

Rhiannon Giddens'

Rhiannon Giddens' "Freedom Highway" is her second solo album. Photo Credit: Nonesuch Records

RHIANNON GIDDENS

“Freedom Highway”

THE GRADE A

BOTTOM LINE Finding inspiration and contemporary context by telling the stories of slaves and the oppressed

Rhiannon Giddens is trying to break your heart. There is no doubt.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops singer’s second solo album, “Freedom Highway” (Nonesuch), is so wrenching that not even her gorgeous voice can provide much comfort.

Sometimes, the gut punch is disguised, like in the groovy “Better Get It Right the First Time,” where she uses call-and-response repetition and R&B horn flourishes to pound the lyric “Young man was a good man” into our heads. Then, she delivers the final blow by wailing, “Baby, they shot you anyway” and steps aside for a cutting rap from Justin Harrington.

Sometimes, her aim is straightforward, as in the stunning tale of “Julie,” told through the conversation of a slave and her owner as the Union army arrives at their plantation. In pieces we learn, the owner is worried about the army discovering the gold she earned from selling off Julie’s children and is still hoping to get help and emotional support from her. That’s when Julie has had enough, declaring, “Mistress, oh Mistress, I wish you well, but in leaving here, I’m leaving hell.”

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