Blood Orange Bottles The Spirit Of An Outsider In Soulful Sweetness

Aug 27, 2018
Originally published on August 27, 2018 6:07 pm

When pop and R&B producers step out to make their own records, they typically put themselves front and center. Devonté Hynes, who performs under the name Blood Orange, does things differently. Hynes is one of the producers shaping pop music right now. He helped create acclaimed records by Solange Knowles and Carly Rae Jepsen. For his first few releases as Blood Orange, the 32-year-old songwriter focused on Prince-like R&B, but on his fourth album, Negro Swan, Hynes gets more experimental and more personal.

On the album's opening track, "Orlando," Hynes sings like he's sailing without much of a care. But beneath that butterfly lightness, he's talking about being bullied in high school. That's a common theme on Negro Swan. Even when the music is pretty and the hooks are insanely grabby, Hynes and his many collaborators are already in the deep end, exploring racial identity, sexual identity, what Hynes calls "black depression" and the experience of being an outsider.

Hynes' otherness comes through in these songs. He grew up in East London as a queer skater and now lives in New York. He has said that his goal with Negro Swan was to talk about difficult issues without dwelling in negativity. That's a tricky tone to sustain. He does it by varying the musical palette. Some tracks are lit up with outbreaks of dissonance from his guitar. Others have a lush, '70s soul sweetness.

The 16-track album, entirely produced by Hynes, involves a large crew of singers and rappers — from A$AP Rocky and Project Pat to Steve Lacy and Amandla Stenberg — and is narrated by author, host and transgender rights activist Janet Mock. On one of the standout tracks, "Hope," Hynes features singer Tei Shi and the rapper none other than Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs. Hynes says he was surprised by what the hip-hop mogul added as the song end: "Sometimes I ask myself, like / You know, what is it going to take for me not be afraid / To be loved the way, like, I really wanna be loved?" Hearing the founder of Bad Boy Records talking earnestly about love and acceptance is a head-turner for sure. At times, the flow of the record is interrupted by spoken word interludes like this one. These hit listeners over the head with big takeaways. It's as though Hynes wants to make sure the themes hit home. He didn't need to worry. These poised, delicate songs have a way of saying it all.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When pop and R&B producers step out to make their own records, they typically put themselves front and center. Devonte Hynes, who performs under the name Blood Orange, does things differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEWELRY")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Shine hit your eyes, black history, ruby ebony sides.

CHANG: Hynes is one of the producers shaping pop music right now. He helped create acclaimed records by Solange Knowles and Carly Rae Jepsen. For his first few releases as Blood Orange, the 32-year-old songwriter focused on Prince-like '80s R&B. Reviewer Tom Moon says on his fourth album, "Negro Swan," Hynes gets more experimental and more personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORLANDO")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) All that I know was taught to me young.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: It could be a love song the way it starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORLANDO")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Seen it all before.

MOON: That's the opening track on the new Blood Orange record. Dev Hynes sings it like he's sailing, without much of a care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORLANDO")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) After school, sucker-punched down. Down and out, first kiss was the floor.

MOON: Beneath that butterfly lightness, he's talking about being bullied in high school. That's a thing to know about this sometimes daring Blood Orange record. Even when the music is pretty, and the hooks are insanely grabby, Hynes and his many collaborators are already in the deep end - exploring racial identity, sexual identity and the experience of being an outsider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHARCOAL BABY")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) No one wants to be the odd one out at times. No one wants to be the negro swan. Can you break sometimes? Can you break sometimes?

MOON: Hynes' outsiderness comes through in these songs, which involve a large crew of singers and rappers. He grew up in East London as a queer skater and now lives in New York. He said that his goal with "Negro Swan" was to talk about difficult issues without dwelling in negativity. That's a tricky tone to sustain, and he does it by varying the musical palate. Some tracks are lit up with outbreaks of dissonance from his guitar. Others have a lush '70s soul sweetness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE (FEAT. PUFF DADDY & TEI SHI)")

TEI SHI: (Singing) Is this the way that you want to pretend? Is this the way that you see me? Is this the way that you - way that you are?

PUFF DADDY: (Rapping) Yeah, bring hope when you come around. Yeah, I still smile when you come around.

TEI SHI: (Singing) Is this the way that you - way that you are?

PUFF DADDY: (Rapping) Yeah, bring hope when you come around. Yeah, I still smile when I come around.

MOON: The singer is Tei Shi, and the rapper is none other than Sean - Puff Daddy - Combs. Hynes says he was surprised by what the hip-hop mogul added as the song ends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE (FEAT. PUFF DADDY & TEI SHI)")

PUFF DADDY: Yeah, gee, I don't - sometimes I ask myself, like, you know, what is it going to take for me not to be afraid to be loved the way, like, I really want to be loved?

MOON: It's a head-turner for sure - hearing the founder of Bad Boy Records talking earnestly about love and acceptance. At times, the flow of the record is interrupted by these spoken word interludes. They hit listeners over the head with big takeaways. It's as though Dev Hynes wanted to make sure his message got through. He didn't need to worry. These poised delicate songs have a way of saying it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAPPY WONDER")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Always feeling.

CHANG: The latest from Blood Orange is called "Negro Swan." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAPPY WONDER")

BLOOD ORANGE: (Singing) Feelings never had no ethics. Feelings never have been ethical. Feelings never had no ethics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.