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  • Ahmed Ragheb

The Metamorphosis of Devonté Hynes

Change is the sign of a good artist, but total evolution is the sign of a great one. Ahmed Ragheb experiences this evolution in the career of Devonté Hynes.

Devonte Hynes Blood Orange The Pittsburgher
Illustration: The Pittsburgher

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

1 Corinthians 13, verse 11

Now, I’m not usually one to quote the Bible – in fact, I’m not even Christian and have hardly any knowledge of the book. Sometimes, though, the cryptic simplicity of Bible passages really seems to hit the spot, as it were. It’s exactly that ambiguous nature that allows the Bible to bring comfort and clarity to so many people around the world in so many different predicaments. I have chosen a particular verse here from 1 Corinthians to make a point – a point about music, musicians, maturity, and transformation.

An aspect of a musician's career that is not discussed enough in popular commentary and criticism (in my opinion, at least) is evolution. I’m talking about true evolution, true change. Not the calculated change between albums designed for controversy and, ultimately, record sales (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swifts of the world) but never becoming so extreme as to alienate fans. Why focus on transformation at all? Because, I would argue, there is more beauty in the metamorphosis of the caterpillar than there is in the butterfly – beautiful as that butterfly may be. Going on that journey with an artist is the closest you – as a listener – will ever feel to them. It is to briefly see the world as they themselves do, it is to feel their self-consciousness, self-reflection, self-criticism and, ultimately, to change with them rather than simply watch them change. In short, it's about intimacy. When we talk about deep musical transformation it’s hard not to mention Bob Dylan and his 60-year quest to become anybody but himself. We can also look to Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys who has shed his skin as a scrappy albeit intelligent Sheffield rocker and emerged as a sophisticated, flamboyant lounge singer.

This brings me to one of the greatest evolutions in recent musical history: the wonderful and confounding career of Devonté Hynes. Hynes began his music career as a member of the short-lived punk-dance band, Test Icicles. Hynes then pivoted to folk-rock under the moniker Lightspeed Champion and then, once again and nimbly, pivoted. Since 2011, Hynes has been releasing music – the best of his career – as Blood Orange. With each new album released under this latest moniker (there have been five albums so far, 2019’s Angel’s Pulse being the latest) his sound becomes clearer and more definitive; each album is a step towards perfection. Music critics have been eager to brand Hynes with colorful labels that sound great for pop music journalism but don't do much in the way of understanding or appreciating the changes represented by those labels. He’s been described as a musical “chameleon” and “alchemist,” restlessly jumping between and blending genres. Is Devonté Hynes restless? I couldn’t possibly say – I don’t know the man. Does he jump between genres? Absolutely. But calling him a chameleon or an alchemist is to diminish the changes, to write them off as simple experimentation or boredom.

It is difficult to fully appreciate and comprehend the journey of Devonté Hynes if your journey begins with Blood Orange’s full-length debut album, Coastal Grooves. Indeed that is where I started. I was delighted to discover such an exciting album by an artist I’d hardly heard of – I couldn’t take two steps while listening to it without dancing, and I’m no dancer. It’s an absolutely electric album. So, naturally I was eager to dive deeper into Blood Orange and, to my delight, there was more to dive into – more than I knew. As I listened on, however, the music changed. It became increasingly complex, in both tone and theme – the clouds that slyly and slowly gathered over the tracks of Coastal Grooves began to darken. The music remained incredibly enjoyable to listen to but it stepped away from any labels of easy listening that one may want to apply to it. On Negro Swan (2018) and the mixtape Angel’s Pulse (2019), Blood Orange gets as close to perfection in expression as any artist can ever get. It’s no longer music in the traditional sense. Though there are lyrics, singing and instrumentation, these albums come closer to cinema than they do to music as we have been programmed to think of it. They include moments of tender and intimate dialogue, and textured, layered soundscapes that one can almost see. The tracks are bursts – some loud, some quiet – of pure expression. Each song is exactly as long as it needs to be, or perhaps as long as it can be. Each song is like a unique and melodious note that Hynes holds for as long as his breath or heart can stand it. Some of the catchiest and most accessible tracks are also the shortest.

After I had devoured all the mixtapes, studio albums, live performances, singles and EPs I could find, I decided to look into Hynes’ earlier musical projects which I had heard about but never listened to. I started with Test Icicles and was absolutely floored. Where was the measured yet free-wheeling genius of Blood Orange? Where was the gender-fluid and unabashed answer to American hip hop that’s found in Negro Swan? Where was the nuanced, heartbreaking, and uplifting milieu of British and American blackness? It certainly was not on what I heard going through Test Icicles’ only studio album, For Screening Purposes Only. But okay, fine, it’s a juvenile project with a juvenile name, I shouldn’t have expected too much there. But the magic of Blood Orange wasn’t present on Hynes’ folk-rock project, Lightspeed Champion, either. I don’t want to spend too much time trashing Hynes’ early projects, it’s not necessary and not entirely fair either – many of the tracks released under Hynes’ monikers would be highlights in the careers of mediocre artists. It is necessary, however, to experience the maturing of an artist as formidable as Hynes. You have to strain your ears to hear the budding Blood Orange in the music of Test Icicles and Lightspeed Champion; it is almost inconceivable that it’s in there. The fact is that it’s not genre jumping as some would like to boil it down to: it’s evolution on a fundamental level.

If Devonté Hynes could read this, I can’t say that he would agree with my characterizations regarding his older music – maybe he still likes it. But I would still argue that implicit in his new music as Blood Orange is a criticism of his older work. This is often the case for artists that truly evolve in the course of their career. The self-criticism may be implicit or explicit. Bob Dylan, for instance, made no effort to hide his evolving self-image as seen in his scathing self-criticism on “My Back Pages.” Hynes has not necessarily gone to that extreme but on every track released under Blood Orange he has proven himself an artist that has put childish things away. ▲

Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!

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