Review: Blood Orange explores uncertainty in latest album

by Madison Wilson | 7/26/19 2:00am

The epilogue to “Negro Swan” explores feelings of anxiety — about growing up, relationships and feeling isolated — in a series of feature-filled vignettes. 

Devonté Hynes’ newest release under the name Blood Orange titled “Angel’s Pulse” picks up where “Negro Swan” left off last year, exploring the anxieties of a 30-something-year-old who is fast approaching the period of “figuring it out.” The work, what Hynes calls a “mixtape,” brings together features from Tinashe, Justine Skye, Toro y Moi and JOBA (of BROCKHAMPTON) among many others for a multitextured record. As usual, Hynes moves past genre limitations, creating a series of vignettes strung together around a few common themes. 

In an interview with Vulture, Hynes said, “I fell toward the word mixtape in terms of talking with everyone, friends and label and whatnot. In my ideal world, I just put it out, and people can do whatever … I just want people, if they hear it, to enjoy it.” 

He doesn’t ask the listener to think too hard about a deeper meaning, instead hoping he or she relies on intuition to understand the work’s themes. With a mixtape, Hynes did not need to confine himself to creating a cohesive, flowing work. “Angel’s Pulse” moves abruptly and nonlinearly, refusing to resolve itself, and in the process shirks the idea of musical and emotional progress. The beauty of the record is Hynes’ freedom from form and thus his ability to explore many themes and ideas at once. 

“Angel’s Pulse” builds on key musical hallmarks of “Negro Swan” — nostalgic ’80s melodies, lyrical falsettos and irregular backing drums — to create cohesion between the two works. In Hynes’ refusal to make “Angel’s Pulse” linked and cohesive, however, he creates distance between the two works, and “Angel’s Pulse” easily stands alone. Overall, the mixtape showcases Hynes’ ability to compile moments into a full listening experience. He relies on the musical talent of his features and his mastery in lyric writing to communicate relatable, universal emotions in unconventional ways. 

“I Wanna C U,” the first track on the record, feels cheery and summery, with a bright backing guitar riff and upbeat vocals. Contrasted with a strong baseline and heavy drums, the sound is different from what we expect out of an opening Blood Orange track. Moving quickly and sharply into “Something to Do,” Hynes becomes more plaintive, almost pleading, singing that he’s, “waiting for something to do.” In contrast to “I Wanna C U,” this track is more tumultuous, grasping at something, but we’re not quite sure what. 

The third track, “Dark & Handsome,” represents nostalgia and ’80s pop, evocative of George Michael. We are treated to Toro y Moi rapping, which, surprisingly, is a welcome addition, bringing ’80s candy pop into the 21st century. Here, Hynes explores an anxiety about aging and emotional closeness. He is “dark and handsome,” drawing people in but cannot seem to get close — “prayin’ for my heart to turn to stone/ice around my wrist, my touch is cold.” Hynes said the track is about “grief, death and suicide,” and this rings true. What happens when you get too close, and then that person is gone? Why bother getting close at all?

The next track, “Benzo,” meditates on similar themes. Hynes sings about how he wonders what happens with his “arms exposed,” and again we feel a worry about getting too close, being too open. The mix is simple, showcasing some Bon Iver-esque dreamy horns toward the end. Here, the record feels less frantic and more accepting, where Hynes recognizes that he will always have to deal with these feelings. 

“Birmingham” is the crowning masterpiece of the album. The song is about the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that killed four girls and injured 22 other persons, and the lyrics are a poem written about the event. The song initially sticks out for its simplicity — only a haunting backing piano and Kelsey Lu and Ian Isiah’s gorgeous vocals are evident. Upon second listen, however, we begin to feel the sheer pain and grief poured into the track. There seems to be something crucial missing here, and its absence is absolutely crushing. The poem specifically discusses a mother of one of the victims, who, upon hearing the bomb blast, ran to the wreckage and found her daughter’s shoe in the rubble. The child is gone and the shoe remains; when we lose something, there is always some painful reminder of its absence. 

Hynes doesn’t spend too long in this space, moving jarringly to “Good For You,” a rhythm and blues/neo soul track featuring Skye. Skye’s buttery vocals carry the track, moving back and forth from theme to theme, conveying a feeling of indecision. “Baby Florence (Figure)” revisits the alarm noises that featured prominently on “Negro Swan,” and these, paired with backing instrumentals reminiscent of the theme of a crime show, give the song a pausing, halting feel. Then, quickly, everything fades to calm. We feel as if Hynes descends into something darker, sadder. 

“Gold Teeth” is a classic hip-hop tune, featuring Gangsta Boo and significant contributions by Project Pat and Tinashe. Tinashe’s falsetto carries the track, lending it stability, especially contrasted with Project Pat and Gangsta Boo’s fresher, rowdier sections. The next track, “Berlin,” asks us how to escape a reality in which we all get older and face hardships. Porches features heavily and complements Hynes’ dreamy vocals well, lending a Moses Sumney-esque ethereal element to the track. “Tuesday Feeling (Choose to Stay)” and “Seven Hours Part 1” are both reminiscent of “Negro Swan” but feel more aching and melancholic. Tinashe is irresistible on “Tuesday Feeling (Choose to Stay),” where Hynes focuses on a specific yearning for his generation: “I want the lifestyle for free.” The track asks why happiness cannot come easily. 

“Take it Back” continues this theme, as Skye communicates one of Hynes’ central conclusions: “f­— that.” To all the commitments, the hardships and the grief, Hynes and Skye say f— that, a simple answer to an eternal, impossible struggle. A feature from JOBA, who Hynes says had a big influence on the record, has the lyrics, “my reflected image vanished in an instant.” Here, Hynes comments on the impermanence of identity and the constant question: Who am I? 

The final two tracks, “Happiness” and “Today,” conclude the mixtape. “Happiness,” while melancholy, brings Hynes to the realization that very little truly matters. “Happiness” is both the conclusion and the thesis of the work, arriving at somewhat grim yet liberating conclusions.

“It’s more that when you realize a lot of things in life don’t matter, it’s freeing,” Hynes writes in the album’s notes. “It means you can focus on doing things for yourself, for your loved ones. You can be purposeful. That, to me, is the ‘Angel’s Pulse.’”

“Today” wraps up “Angel’s Pulse” by inadvertently meditating on politics, as Hynes leaves us on a note of uncertainty and confusion. What is happening in the world right now? He seems to feel stuck but also free.