On record, the music of Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange), can best be described as powerful—rivaling anything released in recent memory. His 2016 release, Freetown Sound, was an examination on the lives of his immigrant parents, as well as the racial injustices that plagued that year. With the help of its impeccable production, the album led to Hynes’ first true fling with critical acclaim, and even found him grouped by the media with socially-conscious giants such as Kendrick Lamar and Solange.
Staying true to this reputation, 2018 saw Hynes go one step further with Negro Swan, a 16-track experience that peers even deeper into black culture, this time dialing in on black depression, and the struggle of coping with racial and sexual individuality. Heavy themes to say the least.
Aside from the complex musicality of each body of work, both albums offer such intimate accounts of Hynes' experience that it can only leave a listener wondering how these songs would translate in a live setting—a space so commonly reserved for celebration and pure entertainment. That answer came on Wednesday night at White Oak Music Hall.
Making a statement at the outset, the night began with the spoken word audio of Janet Mock, the widely regarded activist/writer/director who’s featured throughout Negro Swan. In speaking about what it means to be a family, she stressed the importance of community, “where you don’t have to shrink yourself,” and where “you can fully show up and be vulnerable...without judgment, without ridicule.” Concluding the monologue, Mock stated that “we are not limited by biology. We get to make ourselves. And we get to make our families.”
Dev Hynes would fulfil this revelation throughout his Wednesday night set by relying on his natural ability to present '80s-inspired funk and R&B tunes, while never holding anything back in terms of his message. By the end of the night, White Oak Music Hall would be every bit of the community that Mock alludes to.
No song better emphasized this than “Saint,” a song that focuses on finding comfort in one’s skin color. Despite its obvious intimate thematic nature, Hynes relied on his joyous stage presence and piercing 808 drum sounds to transform the tune into a celebratory singalong focused on “spreading all the love” to one another.
With “Charcoal Baby,” Hynes stuck to the same formula. With its direct reference to Hollywood’s 19th century practice of using charcoal to darken skin color for white audiences, the song isn’t necessarily tailored for a party. Yet, relying on his Nile Rogers-esq guitar shapes and the general 1980s feel that engulfs the majority of Blood Orange’s catalogue, Hynes carried the tune in such a pop-driven manner that had the entirety of the Houston crowd bouncing along. By the time he reached the chorus of “No one wants to be the odd one out at times?/ No one wants to be the Negro swan,” it felt more as a communal moment of positivity and understanding than it did a moment of disappointment that such issues are still being confronted more than 100 years later.
Strengthening the delivery of Hynes’ message was the incredible cast of musicians making up the backing band, which were positioned above Hynes on an elaborately built riser. Most notable of this cast were the backup vocalists, Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah. Both made their presence strongly felt throughout the night, especially with numbers like “Jewelry” and “Best of You,” which saw them step to the front of the stage and take the lead. However, it was on “Holy Will,” where Isiah stole the show. Using his gospel-like falsetto, Isiah belted his way through the number, receiving an applause of disbelief from the audience, and likely forcing many in attendance to immediately google “Blood Orange backup singer.”
However, make no mistake about it, this was Dev Hynes' night through and through. Effortlessly switching between guitar, grand piano, and synth, Hynes’ unique musical makeup was on full display with each song, often times trading between multiple instruments in a given song. Throw in his boundary-pushing fashion sense (which consisted of an all-denim getup over a DJ Screw tee), and all around swagger about the stage, and it’s easy to see why he’s become one of pop music’s most sought after figures.
Most unique, however, is the delicacy of Hynes’ voice in a live setting. While most in the R&B subset rely on raw power and volume to make their impression on the crowd, Hynes’ airy falsetto instead sits back, letting the cinematic feel of the music do the heavy lifting. With songs like “Take Your Time,” the vocals teetered on the edge of incomprehensible, doing just enough to push the song where it needed to go. Though it isn’t built to wow, what it does is present a level of vulnerability that’s every bit of necessary to deliver his message and music in the way it’s intended—that is to be believed and felt.
With this, Hynes was able to form with the audience the type of community alluded to by Mock in her opening monologue—a place where the intimate nature of his music could be safely conveyed, “without judgment, without ridicule.” By the time fan-favorite “E.V.P.” rolled around at the close of night, every bit of this community was on display, as White Oak was transformed into a 1980s dance floor. Once again the tune’s potent subject matter regarding finding the comfort in loneliness was overcome by Hynes’ joyous presentation, making his message even stronger in the long run.
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