Earlier this week Devonté Hynes, the shapeshifting artist behind the spacey R&B project Blood Orange, released the heavily anticipated new album Freetown Sound several days ahead of schedule, the latest surprise move in a career built on them. But perhaps the most surprising thing of all about Hynes is that we’re still talking about a guy who first introduced himself to the world 10 years ago while playing in a band called Test Icicles.
While it sounds like a joke cut from Beavis & Butt-head for being too obvious, Test Icicles were a heavily hyped (for about five minutes) UK dance-punk group in the tradition of Bloc Party and the Rapture, but without the indelible songs. They split shortly after the release of their one and only album For Screening Purposes Only. Hynes, who played synths and guitars and occasionally sang, later wrote the whole thing off as a youthful indiscretion, telling the NME that even he didn’t care for their album.
Hynes was born and raised in England, but for his first reinvention, he got as far away from home, both physically and sonically, as possible: He moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to record Falling Off the Lavender Bridge, the lush-folk rock debut from his moniker Lightspeed Champion. Working with Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis and other players from the then-peaking Omaha scene, Hynes made some lovely sonic methadone for Bright Eyes fans who felt that Conor Oberst just wasn’t making enough music. It was rollicking, heartfelt and sweet, with the bonus of song titles like “Everyone I Know Is Listening to Crunk.”
The album made Hynes a darling of the British press, and he used the increased exposure to indulge in a variety of extravagantly nerdy pursuits—covering the theme from Star Wars (sometimes in costume), releasing his own comic book, contributing to several anthologies and even releasing an EP of acoustic Green Day covers. (Fun fact: the latter was recorded with members of his touring band, including the then-unknown Florence Welch.)
Like the eternally restless teenager that he is, Hynes grew tired of Lightspeed Champion and decided to move in a more R&B and electronic direction with his new project Blood Orange, which made a tentative, low-key debut with 2011's Coastal Grooves. Around then he also started writing and producing for Britney Spears, Solange, Florence and the Machine, Sky Ferreira, Theophilus London and Kylie Minogue. The increased industry exposure raised expectations for the Blood Orange follow-up, and he delivered with the genre-bursting 2013 album Cupid Deluxe.
For the sprawling, 17-track Freetown Sound, Hynes has recruited guests including Carly Rae Jepsen, Debbie Harry, Lorely Rodriquez (Empress Of) and even writer Ta-Nehisi Coates—who a youthful reflection on dressing like you’re always ready for a fight on “Love Ya"—for a collection that mixes languids jams, ‘80s inspired keyboard hooks and lyrics that touch upon everything from sexual fluidity to Black Lives Matter. Hynes, who plays most of the instruments here, throws enough elements in the mix to keep things from getting too chilled-out, such as the forceful backbeats on "Augustine,” the uplifting choir vocals on “By Ourselves” and the popping bass and Rick James-worthy synths on “Juicy 1-4,” but overall he’s making deeply layered head-trip music here—music for when the world seems insane and pillows of sighing R&B goth keyboards and world-weary sweet nothings are the only thing that can bring you back.
Though he’s shown he knows how to write a pop banger with the best of them, there’s not much here for the dancefloor, though the Nelly Furtado duet on “Hadron Collider” is the prom song America’s art magnet high schools deserve.
Listening to the album, it’s hard to shake the sense that Hynes is exploring every possible iteration of the Blood Orange sound he can think of—touching upon every idea important to him before he moves on to the next thing. But maybe it will turn out that he’s just getting started, which, given his history, would be the biggest surprise of all.