Swan Song

Emmanuel Olunkwa on Blood Orange’s recent show in Central Park

Devonté Hynes. Photo: Dana Pacifico.

DEVONTÉ HYNES’S SONGS always remind me of a phrase my grandmother would say when people—and there were dozens of them—would share a moment of deep reflection or truth with her. She’d echo their words with “Take ’em to church, honey”—not because their truth posed any religious reference but because of the nature and universality of what was being expressed. Taking someone to church is a means of sharing one’s faith and teaching one’s gospel. Hynes’s songs serve as emotional guides to process heartache, insecurities, and selfhood, but experiencing his latest tour, under his long-term moniker Blood Orange, for his fourth studio album, Negro Swan (2018), felt unlike any Hynes I have seen before. This album isn’t so much concerned with processing his doubt or disbelief in public as his previous ones.

Last week Hynes played a sold-out show in New York’s Central Park for the Summer Stage series. The opening act was Yves Tumor, whose expertly plangent vibes flow lushly from their new Safe in the Hands of Love (2018). Set times were pushed forward to accommodate forecasted rain, so Girlpool’s Cleo Tucker, artist Ilana Kozlov, and I hurried to make Yves’s performance once we arrived. Fall was here, but humidity sopped the hot air and drew sweat to our skin. On stage, the voice of writer and activist Janet Mock began to extol the virtues of chosen family, and then transformed into the beautiful opening chords of Negro Swan’s somnambulant “Saint.” The songs that followed included “Minnetta,” “Charcoal Baby,” “Holy Will (feat. Ian Isiah),” and a few standout tracks from Freetown Sound (2016), such as “Best to You” and “Augustine.”

I first discovered Hynes’s Blood Orange project in high school. One night I was making AP English vocab cards while scrolling through Pitchfork’s Best New Music section, when I found his perfect, satiny sophomore album, Cupid Deluxe (2013). One year later, I moved from Los Angeles to New York to study at the New School, where I would isolate myself and became more familiar with who I was by confronting the person I had become. Hynes’s music was there all the way. In the winter of 2016, I met Hynes playing ping-pong at Fat Cat in the West Village. We spent a lot of time running around downtown or at Elvis Guesthouse or the apartment of Aaron Maine (of Porches) and Greta Kline (of Frankie Cosmos) just southeast of Washington Square Park, on Mercer Street. Hynes is transient in how he navigates the city—seeing friends, recording, reading, and playing soccer, basketball, and table tennis are not activities to busy his mind so much as they are ways for him to structure his life and song.

I got to witness the inception and execution of his album Freetown Sound. I watched him craft melodies that recount lived experiences—exploring his parents’ experience, their journeys, and their departure from Sierra Leone for the United Kingdom. As he built Negro Swan, I saw him think through his late teens and early twenties as a way to understand and memorialize things that shaped him and discard those he cannot carry anymore.

This show was different from ones I’ve seen before, as Negro Swan is different from Freetown Sound is different from Cupid Deluxe is different from Coastal Grooves (2011). Hynes always gives you where he’s at—for now he’s less theatrical, more driven by sound. He danced, yes, as he sang and played piano and guitar. But he was also happy to take a back seat to his bandmates (Ian Isiah, Eva Tolkin, DJ Ginyard, Jason Arce, Jamire Williams, and Mikey Freedom Hart), just letting what he’d made do its work. I saw Hynes unlike I have ever seen him before. His stripped-down set revealed him at his most free. At a typical show—although one never knows what to expect from Devonté—you see him fading in and out of song and dance. He is one to vigorously rehearse, which has come through in the care and technique exuded in his past performances, but this Central Park moment showed something else: It was less about the choreography and more about the music. Hynes is known for emotional ruminations akin to popular music from the late 1980s and ’90s, but this was nothing short of a gospel performance.