It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to Dev Hynes. If you’re someone who has heard anything from the four albums he has released under the name Blood Orange, you know that he is an artist that is difficult to define or pin down. Part of the Dev Hynes appeal is his elusiveness. Even if you’ve never listened to or heard of Blood Orange, it’s likely you’ve still engaged with his sound in some shape or form. Many tout him as one of the epoch-making figures in the current era of Pop music. Although not a household name himself, he’s collaborated with and produced music for many recognizable artists; Solange Knowles, Mariah Carey, Willow Smith, Carly Rae Jepson, and A$AP Rocky are just a few names from an extensive and diverse list.
The England raised, New York based Devonté Hynes (Dev for short) is a producer, lyricist, vocalist, composer, dancer, and more. He plays just about every instrument, as well as soccer. He dabbles with intensity in a range of artistic projects, yet in no way does his work ever feel amateurish or underdeveloped. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and even so, when I try to describe to people who he is, his genre or evocative style, I am at a continual loss for words. Partially because the Blood Orange sound feels as though it exists in its own universe, but also because of the quality of elusiveness that is so central to who Dev is as a personality and artist. He escapes any definitive category.
As an artist, Dev remains incredibly under-appreciated, existing in the in-between of being not fully underground or mainstream. Being both critically acclaimed and recognized as a significant figure of the sonic constellation of this era, he is not widely known or hugely popular—although if you consider yourself a fan, it might feel differently.
So what makes him so special? As Blood Orange, Dev has consistently produced music that is both funky and deeply moving. Blood Orange offers a kind of sonic paradox, one that is simultaneously soothing and unsettling. It satisfies a certain sound desire you may have never realized you had. Beyond these aesthetic qualities however, Blood Orange is an expression of Dev’s commitment to represent the stories and histories of those that are often unrepresented and marginalized. His third album, Freetown Sound, explores themes of collective displacement and heartbreak, and the title is named after his father’s hometown in Sierra Leone. As an individual, Dev’s way of being is tied to a certain fluidity. His albums, from content to cover art, are all underpinned by engagement with black queer sexuality. In many ways, his music subverts many of the adverse mainstream cultural narratives and stereotypes projected onto black masculinity. In this sense, his music and artistic output is always in conversation with what it means to be black, black and queer, and the feelings of displacement and depression that often exist within these things. He is able to engage with these identities in a way that is politically charged, but always through a much larger emphasis on the intimate and personal. In this sense, Dev’s music is both sonically and socially subversive.
The evolution of his musical career thus far is an example of his range of capabilities. Before Blood Orange, Dev dabbled in dance-punk and folk-pop. The genesis of Dev Hynes as Blood Orange came in 2011 via Coastal Grooves. While there is a certain cohesiveness to the thematics and sound of all of the Blood Orange albums, each is unique in its own way. Dev’s sound evolves alongside his ever-changing self—consistent in quality and beauty, but never the same. In an attempt to give the Blood Orange sound an overall description: it’s funky, full of movement, as well as a blooming sense of melancholy. It is sexy, but not overtly sexual. Coastal Grooves seamlessly weaves reverberations of sad bedroom, surf, and night club synth. In essence, the Blood Orange sound that sinks in fast and settles deep.
I first heard Dev Hynes when I was 17. He composed the original score for the 2014 coming-of-age independent film Palo Alto, in addition to the inclusion of several Blood Orange songs on the soundtrack. The score sets the tone for the entire film: an elegant and youthful 18 track score. The ease and beauty of the Palo Alto score makes it something I still recommend to anyone who has begun the ascent into the world of Blood Orange. It’s great for studying, crying, driving in the car…the opportunities are endless.
I saw Blood Orange back in February at the Joy Theater, following the release of Negro Swan. Having the presence and dynamism that he does in recordings alone, his live performance was something out of a dream. The music was smoother and richer, his voice even more hauntingly beautiful. He’s the type of artist that is so present and centered in his own art; you can tell he deeply feels every part of what he is offering through his music. It was so genuine and transfixing that there were moments I found myself unable to dance, because all I wanted to do was stand and stare at him, I was so arrested by the overwhelming convergence of sight, sound, and feeling. This presence can be felt in his recordings, which I think is part of why the quality of his music is so difficult to define.
In short, you won’t be disappointed if you begin to explore any facet of what Dev Hynes/Blood Orange has to offer. Negro Swan features collaborations with A$AP Rocky and Steve Lacey, as well as a wealth of music videos.
Not sure where to start? If you’re a big fan of A$AP check out the song “Chewing Gum” and the music video that goes along with it. “Charcoal Baby” and “Saint” are two of my personal favorites. If the aesthetics of Coastal Grooves caught your fancy, I recommend “Sutphin Boulevard,” “S’Cooled,” and “Can We Go Inside Now?” as great starting points. You really can’t go wrong. And if you find that Dev’s sound isn’t for you, try digging a little deeper. I truly do believe there is something for everyone in his music.
Whether or not Dev ever transcends to the level of star status that might seem a natural companion to his level of talent and influence, Pop music of today would not be what it is without him.Even if we’re not all fans, I think we should all take some type to appreciate the soccer playing, music making, renaissance magic man that is Dev Hynes.
COVER PHOTO: Crack Magazine