opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve been listening to the music of certified triple threat Devonte Hynes for a long time – as a producer, a songwriter for the likes of Florence Welch and the Chemical Brothers, as one member of third-string dance-punk act Test Icicles and only member of third-string folk-rock act Lightspeed Champion. 2012, however, was undeniably his champagne year, when we reached a Devonte Hynes critical mass with Solange’s True and Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” both co-written and produced by Hynes. Neither Solange nor Ferreira stormed the scene with Hynes’s songs; rather, they tip-toed in politely and then proceeded to work toward popular ubiquity. These songs were sleeper hits, but it seems Hynes doesn’t write any other kind. His aesthetic may have been one of last year’s most recognizable, but this is in part due to its radical modesty: a Hynes song, perpetually hazy without ever really risking obscurity, might possess a dynamite hook (“Everything Is Embarrassing,” “Lovers In The Parking Lot”), but often it’s hard to distinguish from the rest of the melody upon first listen. Once you learn the contours of the song, though, you can’t go back: the chorus that seemed slack and uninspired the first time around gradually assumes widescreen proportions and ultimately becomes undeniable. In this sense, Hynes’s songs are quintessential examples of “growers,” tracks that don’t make their ambitions plain and scan as harmless, but which, given a little time, subtly increase in power until suddenly they punch the listener in the gut without having seemed to change at all. It’s no wonder Ferreira didn’t re-team with Hynes for her blunt, brash debut LP Night Time, My Time; their pop M.O.s right now are diametrically opposed.
The first time we got a taste of Blood Orange, Hynes’s youngest solo project, was 2011’s Coastal Grooves. That record was a monochromatic collection of would-be growers that never grew, but 2011 also saw the release of the single “Dinner,” still probably Blood Orange’s best work to date, a hushed yet scathing and insanely catchy shock of a breakup song dressed up in specious pastel synth tones. If Coastal Grooves was a whole album of skeletal elevator music and missed opportunities, “Dinner” was the ideal next step, a fully seized opportunity that explored the exciting tension of pairing fraught emotional content with pleasantly mesmerizing music. It was both these general principles and the sonic specifics of “Dinner” which Hynes applied to his work for Solange and Ferreira, and it’s these sounds and principles which have since gone on to define the music released as Blood Orange. In its combination of trendy influences and this decades habitual nostalgias, it couldn’t be any more current – it’s a potent cocktail of classic R&B and hip-hop, cool jazz and ‘80s easy-listening, indie pop, scrappy DFA funk, and whatever’s in the water up in Toronto (a la Drake and the Weeknd), all run through a Washed Out Instagram filter – but Hynes’s great virtue is that he pits these sounds against each other in ways that are highly stylish, yes, but also tense and interesting, and in the process he writes songs that don’t closely resemble anyone else’s. Considering that the Blood Orange project’s overall vibe is so unassuming, it’s remarkable that its sonic identity is so rock-solid and unique.
One inadvertent negative consequence of this is that there’s a kind of default Blood Orange song, first and best represented on his second LP Cupid Deluxe by single “You’re Not Good Enough,” and we heard it eight times already last year when Solange and Ferreira brought considerably more vocal energy to the table than Hynes does. The worst stretches of Cupid Deluxe are those in which Hynes is content to simply reproduce that one song, causing the record to sink into monotony and tedium. But at his best, the guy’s got a gift for teasing out the latent flexibility of a seemingly rigid aesthetic, and this doesn’t just apply to the record’s wise variations in pace (True, by contrast, rarely budged from its standard midtempo stroll). He knows that, mixed just right, sharp post-punk guitar squiggles will breathe life into what could have been just more of the same Blood Orange fare (“It Is What Is” and “No Right Thing”), and that the deft employment of stately piano figures will lend grace and sparkle to the harsh beats, overwhelming reverb, and emotional anguish of closer “Time Will Tell.” When he deviates from the basic model, he takes only well-calculated risks, and they usually pay off, whether it’s the anthemic choir of jazzy mid-album highlight “Chosen,” the more straightforward hip-hop of “Clipped On” and “High Street,” and the strutting guitars and dark, warped woodwinds of the funky “Uncle ACE,” definitely Cupid Deluxe’s weirdest track and also probably its most fun. And these production tics always serve the best interests of Hynes’s expertly crafted melodies, subtle but ultimately indomitable hooks that leave far deeper impressions than they seem to be doing.
Thematically, Blood Orange is more conservative. Cupid Deluxe presents over and over again the same basic story as True and “Everything Is Embarrassing,” one of torturous miscommunications between people who want to be in love but aren’t much good at it. The atmosphere of doubt and longing is palpable, but well before the album’s end it comes to seem less like an honest exploration of ambiguity and more like a troubling reluctance to commit to any clear opinion or emotional risk. The parade of guests vocalists – Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, Adam Bainbridge of Kindness, Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, rapper Skepta, and Samantha Urbani of Friends, who appears throughout the album – distracts somewhat from this problem, but it’s an unsustainable tactic since only Longstreth and Polachek bring any more conviction to the material than does Hynes, himself only a capable singer at best. Listening to Cupid Deluxe, I longed for “Dinner”’s hard left into savage, unequivocal articulations of toxic spite and for Ferreira’s heartbreakingly ragged take on “Everything Is Embarrassing.” Instead, there’s indecision for miles but little sense of the tension and pressure that would make that stasis compelling enough for even one pop song, let along a whole album.
It’s when Hynes hauls himself out of this stupor and matches thrilling songwriting and production with sharper lyricism and emotional conviction that Cupid Deluxe most fully realizes the potential of Blood Orange. Stunning opener “Chamakay” finds Hynes and the endlessly charismatic Polachek trading suspicious glances over a moody backing of saxophone and kalimba, while closer “Time Will Tell” revisits one of the blander tracks here, “It Is What It Is,” only to plunge it into reverb and give it a sickly minor-key twist. These bookending tracks are the moments that document not the malaise of ambiguity but the drama of ambivalence. Rather than avoiding taking a firm position on the troubled and probably doomed relationships at the songs’ centers, “Chamakay” and “Time Will Tell” take several firm but contradictory positions each – resignation and optimism, suspicion and trust, urgency and procrastination, the tenderness of affection and the undertow of dependence – and then struggle to reconcile them. While most of the lyrics here come off like uncertain placeholders devoid of real meaning, Hynes’s pleas of “come into my bedroom” on “Time Will Tell” sound like they mean almost too much for the words or their singer to bear. The effect is powerful, and Hynes would do well to take his own cue on future material. For now, though, Cupid Deluxe is, much like many of his narrators, flawed but fundamentally decent. Blood Orange’s sound is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing and important in pop today, and this sophomore effort is a promising progression for an artist who deserves more of the spotlight, but probably won’t ever demand it. [B]