I first heard Blood Orange in high school when 2016’s Freetown Sound had just come out and the single “Best To You” was circulating around as a critical darling. It was like nothing I’d heard before: a tightly composed R&B ballad over a background of lush dance electronics — a melody that stuck in your head. It was, for lack of a better term, the sexiest song I’d ever heard. I immediately fell in love with the song and then with its composer, Blood Orange’s front-man Dev Hynes.
Hynes’ fourth studio album Negro Swan came out a couple of months ago, and I was excited to see where he’d take his songwriting. The album is more down-tempo than the last and deeper in its messages. Dispersed throughout the album are spoken-word interludes, fragments of conversations Hynes’ had with writer Janet Mock. On “Family,” Mock says, “I think of family as community. I think of the spaces where you don’t have to shrink yourself. Where you don’t have to pretend or perform. You can fully show up and be vulnerable. And in silence, completely empty and that’s completely enough.” These moments pull together the themes of the album: making your place in the world and finding pride in your sexuality, race and identity.
Blood Orange played at Rams Head Live! on Friday, March 1 and were preceded by their opener, 20-year-old rapper MIKE who performed a few songs to the intimate crowd. MIKE, like Dev Hynes, grew up in London and was influenced by the grime scene and other English artists like King Krule. His songs, which touched on themes of depression and anxiety, got the crowd bobbing their heads and set the tone of the night.
Dev took the stage at Ram’s Head soon after, his band assembling on the riser behind him: drums, a bass, a keyboard, a saxophone and a flute. The stage grew dark, and the lighting, hues of dull red and purple and blue, illuminated the band and emphasized the melancholic nature of the songs. Hynes started the night with “Take Your Time,” one of the songs on the album where Hynes and his guitar are alone on the track. The song was followed by “Saint,” a track dedicated to a lost black boy and the first up-beat song of the evening, featuring the smooth vocals from back-up singers Eva Tolkin and Ian Isaiah.
Something should be said for the vocal abilities of the three performers, who all maintained studio quality throughout the entire performance and demonstrated charming chemistry on stage. Hynes sang effortlessly, and when Tolkin and Isaiah fronted songs, he stepped back allowing them to take center stage.
The stage was washed in purple for “Charcoal Baby,” a song about loneliness and the first single of the album. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times / No one wants to be the Negro swan. Can you break sometimes?” sang Hynes over drifty and dissonant guitar chords. By asking a question like “Can you break sometimes?” the performance captured the contradiction of the show. It’s sorrowful and anxious but upbeat. It’s dissonant but danceable. Hynes manages to channel the heavy emotion of the songs into something cathartic.
The set list also featured songs from Freetown Sound, Cupid Deluxe and Coastal Grooves. “Champagne Coast” came after “Best to You” and “It is What it Is,” some of Blood Oranges’ more pop-y cuts. I was most familiar with these songs, having listened to them countless times over the years, so this was my favorite part of the show. The energy was at its highest here, with every member of the band engaged. It was a sequence of songs that had the crowd dancing, singing and completely lost in the fun of the concert.
Hynes closed the show with the album’s closer “Smoke,” where the lighting suddenly shifted from the dim rich color-wash from before, and a bright white spotlight caught Hynes in the middle of the stage. “The sun comes in / My heart fulfills within,” sang Hynes, illuminated for the first time by the bright light which paralleled the warmth and acceptance in his words. The song was calm and paired down, closing the show on a calm but optimistic note. “Shout out Solange!” Hynes shouted, referrencing Solange Knowles’ album which released that day, an album Hynes contributed to.
Negro Swan is about anxiety and pain as much as it is about healing from these things through ownership of your situation. Like the album, the show felt universal, understanding and ultimately offered itself as a space for everyone to feel safe and free.