Every time I’ve seen Devonté Hynes perform as Blood Orange—including sets at Pitchfork festivals in 2013 and 2016, an intimate show at the Empty Bottle in 2014, and a fantastic headlining concert at the Vic in 2016—I’ve walked away shaking my head that he isn’t a global superstar. In a better universe, his albums Cupid Deluxe (2013) and Freetown Sound (2016) would be considered world-beating touchstones by now. Since I first heard them, their depth has only become more apparent to me. After Blood Orange’s stirring early-evening set at Pitchfork on Saturday, the same old stupid thoughts about how popular Hynes should be—and questions about whether that much popularity would even interest him—ricocheted around my brain.
Hynes is so obviously a brilliant polymath that it might seem pointless to argue that the wider public has simply failed to notice, but that doesn’t undercut my fantasies. If he were a baseball player, a wizened scout who’d seen all the greats would say he has all five tools. Since I’m a music critic, I’ll be more specific.
Despite Hynes’s limited vocal range, his voice has a captivating emotional heft, and since his time in mid-aughts dance-punk band Test Icicles (and his subsequent years performing as Lightspeed Champion), he’s become far more adept at employing that range effectively. Not only is his own considerable discography absolutely glorious, he’s also collaborated with Carly Rae Jepsen, Sky Ferreira, and Solange Knowles on some of their best material. Though he’s proficient on an orchestra hall full of instruments, he hasn’t spread himself so thin that he’s spectacular on none of them—dude can shred on electric guitar like few of his contemporaries when he feels like showing off. Hynes is also among a strikingly small set of musicians who can provoke an emotional response with their dancing—he hits the sweet spot between awkward moves that somehow become memes and fussed-over acrobatics that constantly aim to make highlight reels. Related to all these, he’s keenly gifted at making any space feel intimate.
Naturally, he arrived onstage solo to play a stripped-down version of “Everything Is Embarrassing” (which he originally demoed for Ferreira and never recorded himself) for electric piano and prerecorded drums. Initially I thought Hynes might be trying a gambit like the one Talking Heads used in the concert film Stop Making Sense, where David Byrne comes out first with a boom box and the rest of the band trickles after. But Hyne’s backing musicians soon arrived en masse and launched into “Desirée,” a Freetown Sound highlight swirling with early-80s downtown avant-disco energy.
The track highlighted Hynes’ superb rhythm-guitar playing—slinky and crisp enough to make Chic’s Nile Rodgers sit up and take notice—but the standout performer on “Desirée” (as well as the band’s funkier material) was bassist DJ Ginyard, whose rubbery lines meshed with the exacting beats of drummer Jamire Williams to get the crowd moving. On Cupid Deluxe‘s lead cut, “Chamakay,” the vaulting harmonies and lead lines of backup singers Ian Isiah and Eva Tolkin took center stage. After Jason Arce’s bracing saxophone solo on “It Is What It Is,” the crowd thundered its approval—one of the few times I’ve heard a Pitchfork audience salute a wind instrument of any kind. Like Blood Orange’s albums, the all too-short 45-minute set was full of these moments, when Hynes would hang back and let the voices around him have their say.
Since it aired in 2014, I’ve rewatched a clip of Blood Orange’s hushed and intense performance of “It Is What It Is” on Jimmy Kimmel’s show innumerable times. Hynes makes an obvious statement by wearing a homemade Black Lives Matter T-shirt, and as the performance begins, he sings into a broom like a kid in his bedroom. He’s joined by a talented cast of backup dancers, and the choreography blooms into series of movements that seem to ask very serious questions: How can human beings possibly bear an impossible weight? How can the most disenfranchised among us survive in a world so filled to the brim with individual and systemic racism, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia?
Hynes didn’t explicitly raise any of these issues from the stage on Saturday night, and unless you were listening to the songs’ lyrics carefully, they might have passed you by. Or perhaps not. During these terrible days, serious trouble is on offer everywhere you look. Hynes is a master at melding his musical ideas and political passions to confront impossible questions—and with empathy, collaboration, and his outstanding fellow musicians, he uses Blood Orange to answer them, or shout back at them, or at least bear witness to them as best he can. In August, Blood Orange is due to release a new full-length, Negro Swan. It can’t come soon enough.