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Review: Blood Orange’s Haunted, Sexy ‘Negro Swan’

Dev Hynes delivers praise songs to self-realization and fluidity, with help from Janet Mock, A$AP Rocky, P-Diddy and others.

Dev HynesThe Whitney Museum Gala and Studio Party, New York, USA - 22 May 2018

Lexie Moreland/WWD/REX Shutterstock

As Blood Orange, Dev Hynes uses the textures and tropes of Quiet Storm soul and New Romantic drama – styles not generally known for great creative depth – as vehicles for political consciousness-raising and channeling avant-garde pop ideas. It’s a slyly potent approach, as he proved on 2016’s identity-meditation Freetown Sound. The fourth Blood Orange LP is equally powerful, and maybe even more personal.

On the opening track – titled “Orlando,” in an echo of Virginia Woolf’s gender-switching novel – Hynes evokes the urban concréte of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” while telling of a teenager “sucker punched down” and numb from bullying, whose “first kiss was the floor.” The narrative is autobiographical, in fact, and it unspools like a seduction over swooning harmonies. By the song’s end, that floor kiss becomes a sort of act of devotion, as author and trans activist Janet Mock speaks of wringing empowerment from oppression.

So sets the tone for a gorgeously heady, haunted and sexy album that celebrates self-realization and fluidity, stylistic and otherwise, in the midst of darkness, with ongoing narration by Mock and others. The guest list reflects its artistic catholicism. Georgia Anne Muldrow, Caroline Polachek, Steve Lacy, Ian Isiah, A$AP Rocky, and Sean “Puffy” Combs all chip in — the latter on “Hope,” a swirl of impressionist r&b with singer Tei Shi about learning how to feel worthy of love. It’s a bit off-brand for P-Diddy, but Hynes seems to inspire collaborators to channel their highest selves – an embodiment of the cover image of an elegant black angel sideshowing Oakland-style from a car window. The world could use more artists like Hynes — especially now.

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