Dev Hynes, in case you didn't know, is a producer with a string of bizarre and diverse projects behind him, and is, we can confirm, hugely talented.
Years before Blood Orange was fully ripened, Devonté Hynes popped up on my radar as part of amusingly-named and sporadically brilliant dance-thrash trio Test Icicles, with whom he rapped, shredded, screamed, and severed a toe on stage. Once the group sadly, inevitably dissipated, he was reborn as Lighstpeed Champion – whose first single was pretty much the antithesis of his previous outfit. And it was brilliant.
His two Champion albums were a collection of Bright Eyes-alike baroque folk which wore its heart on its sleeve and a bunch of classic-rock influenced sad songs, respectively. Typical subjects included an unhappy tale of losing his virginity and a song about how much it sucks to be a prostitute (only one of these was autobiographical, so far as I know).
After that was all done and dusted, Hynes moved onto Blood Orange – maybe his most accomplished musical project to date, and yet his least-celebrated. Which is a shame. Dinner, his first single in his new outfit, is a simple pop song with a gorgeous twinkling keyboard solo in the middle of a pounding electronic drum beat and Hynes’ distant, quivering croon.
His solid songwriting and chameleon-like musical aptitude can be partly chalked up to his synesthesia, i.e. he “sees” music as colours and shapes, as well as hearing it. Whilst the cacophony of Test Icicles or the complex orchestral rock of Lightspeed Champion probably looked something like Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road to Hynes, Blood Orange was designed to “look” like simple, Rothko-esque block colours. So, the productions on first album ‘Coastal Grooves’ are sparse, simple and crazy-catchy, with Hynes’ breathy vocals shifting in and out of basic programmed drum patterns, languidly driving bass lines and interruptions of high-pitched guitars. They wouldn’t sound out of place amongst the alienated bright lights, big city electro-pop of the Drive soundtrack.
The place where Hynes is really making waves as Blood Orange is in his writing and production work for other artists, including Solange Knowles and Sky Ferreira. Tracks like Knowles’ Losing You have continued the cool, minimalist eighties pop sound, like demos of early Cyndi Lauper or Madonna songs, and have blown up online. Ferreira’s Everything Is Embarrassing is even simpler, and maybe more beguiling, just a pounding 808, a piano chord and the 20-year-old’s voice bumping into each other in an echo chamber.
The sounds are wispy and ethereal, but not in the manner of wistful folk – because it also has tunes that stick in your head and lyrics that evoke longing, heartbreak and other such subjects in a simpler, more direct manner than the country-tinged lyricism of Lightspeed Champion (the chorus to Champagne Coast is the simple, effective “come into my bedroom”). It’s sad while being sexy, the most potent yet misunderstood pop music cocktail, and Hynes is a master mixologist. Not one of those that flings the bottles around and shows off his pecs, but one that works simply, elegantly, and creates something uniquely delicious from recognisable flavours. Working with people like Solange is helping get his signature sound to a wider audience, which can only be a good thing; it’s also helping refine his sound, which is intimate whilst being distant, sexy but withdrawn, simple yet effective.