I first saw Dev Hynes in the flesh on a sunny evening in the late 2000s. He was walking down Brick Lane in east London with a guitar on his back, wearing those big thick-rimmed glasses with the clear lenses, his hair swooshed into the kind of dramatic side-parting favoured by scene kids on MySpace. From what I remember, he was on his way to Rough Trade to perform a solo set under then-new moniker Lightspeed Champion. Test Icicles, the thrashy dance-punk band he’d become known for, had broken up the year prior, and at that point he was playing acoustic indie songs with breezy guitar melodies and lyrics that spoke of lost love, growing up and listening to crunk.
The second time I saw him was around five years later, at The 100 Club. The thick-rimmed glasses were long gone, replaced instead by a tight vest, gold chain and dad cap. All the awkwardness of his early twenties seemed to have faded too – or at least it looked that way on stage, where he was no longer hunched over and hiding beneath a huge fringe, but twirling around with a mic and moving his hips to the beat. By then Dev was performing slick, 80s-sounding synth tracks under the name Blood Orange, clearly now way more into squelching funk grooves and electronics than ferocious punk chords or twee, folk-pop acoustics.
Even within Blood Orange, Dev has flung off and inhabited numerous skins. Coastal Grooves, his 2011 debut under that artist name was full of slinky, neon guitar pop, sitting somewhere between the sound of early 80s New York and what Bloc Party could have feasibly released after A Weekend in the City. By the time second album, Cupid Deluxe, swung around in 2013, Blood Orange had gotten even slicker and more refined, gifting us with a pristine collection of butter-smooth synth jams and woozy funk instrumentals. And then there was his last album, Freetown Sound – a sprawling rumination on race and sexuality that doubled as a celebration of pop – its existence galaxies away from the days when he used to screech “One more time! Another line!” in a punk band.
Today, Blood Orange releases his fourth album, Negro Swan, and it follows this same trajectory. It is wholly fresh, and yet remains very much his own: You can hear the soft, 80s synth of previous albums (opener “Orlando” glides out the speakers like cream from a silver jug), as well as the familiar, soulful tone of his voice (tracks like “Saint” and “Charcoal Baby” serve as reminders that Hynes is an exceptional vocalist.) Even the lyrics – which speak of nighttime, city life, romance, racial politics and queerness in a way that render them intertwined – are typical of what we’ve come to expect from Blood Orange. He always writes as if he is projecting a film onto the listener’s mind, each song twinkling and glistening like passing cars on a city freeway in the dark. He doesn’t have to tell you he’s a synesthete; you can feel it all over his sound.
And yet, Negro Swan – which counts A$AP Rocky, Ian Isiah, Tei Shi, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Steve Lacy, Janet Mock and Puff Daddy among its features – is again like nothing Blood Orange has ever done before. While earlier albums were full of bright hooks and punchy dancefloor anthems, this one occupies a completely different colour pallette: it’s darker, more sorrowful and introspective, even it’s most joyful moments offset with having navigated through trauma to reach them. “My newest album is an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of colour,” Hynes wrote in a press release. Basically, these aren’t songs to smash out at a house party – they are gorgeous, swirling gems that deserve space to breathe. Rather than being soaked in colour, this album feels like it’s splashed with moonlight.
At this point, Dev Hynes should be recognised for what he is: an auteur. He may have started out as just another indie kid in a sea of screaming bands wearing primary colour H&M jeans, but with each new release his vision has blossomed, his signature sound becoming airtight. Listen to his production for other artists (Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sky Ferreira), or else his ethereal, pink-tinged score for the 2013 Gia Coppola film Palo Alto, and you can hear his stamp all over them too. In other words: over the past decade or so, Dev has slowly constructed a musical universe – a 360 degree space that is always evolving, but belongs to him.
Negro Swan could well be Hynes’ most fully-realised project to date. Like Frank Ocean’s Blond(e), or Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy, or Lorde’s Melodrama, it’s the kind of record that is difficult to write about after one listen. It needs to be kept in your hand for a while, then held up to the light and observed from different angles. Most importantly, though, it has cemented Hynes as the creative powerhouse he has always been. He has painted a whole world out of syrupy vocals and glimmering synths and lyrics that mean something – now let’s all step inside.