Does Dev Hynes Make His Best Work For Other Artists?

IN 2012 Dev Hynes helped write and produce  two of the decade’s most defining songs.

Sky Ferreira’s ‘Everything Is Embarrassing’ and Solange’s ‘Losing You’ share a combined DNA, matching airy synths with gated drum machines and an open, pared-back production style reminiscent of ’80s R&B.

You can hear what would become hallmarks of Hynes’ Blood Orange project all over the two tracks, and yet they still remain the most overtly pop-centric songs he’s ever been a part of. (No small feat considering Hynes has also written and produced for Carly Rae Jepsen, Haim, and Kylie Minogue.)

While Blood Orange songs haven’t aspired for such an obvious pop nirvana again, the two songs remain (perhaps unfairly) the barometer of which Hynes’ work is measured against.

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All Swan, No Song

NEGRO Swan, Hynes’s fourth studio album under Blood Orange, is a significantly more esoteric listen.

With transgender activist and writer Janet Mock appearing as the album’s narrator on several songs throughout, the album is less concerned with making the listener dance and more interested in relating the thematic concern and narrative of anxiety and depression as a person of colour in the modern world.

Negro Swan is a transposition of Hynes’ grey, unhappy childhood memories in East London.

Hynes’ delicate, worn-out falsetto isn’t the voice this type of songwriting would usually utilise, but it also gives the music a lived-in, expansive feel.

“First kiss was the floor” is the first hook we hear on the album (on the genre-hopping ‘Orlando’) and it’s a thudding snap back into reality after an idyllic first minute.

Hynes’ virtuosic guitar playing has always been his not-so-secret weapon. Think of the chicken-scratch riffing on 2013’s ‘You’re Not Good Enough’, or the frantic, swooping repeated entries of 2016’s ‘Best To You’.

It’s a shame then that Negro Swan mostly relegates the guitar to a background instrument, save for the watery, Connan Mockasin-esque riff that underpins first single ‘Charcoal Baby’.

Instead, Hynes opts for a curiously muted instrumental palette, such as the blocky electric piano chords that bookend ‘Take Your Time’ and ‘Nappy Wonder’, or the lumbering drum machines of ‘Dagenham Dream’.

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FOLLOWING the bright, vibrant sonic diaspora of the most recent Blood Orange records – 2016’s Freetown Sound and 2013’s Cupid DeluxeNegro Swan is a transposition of Hynes’ grey, unhappy childhood memories in East London. However, the production is also curiously one-note, considering Hynes’s considerable talents writing and producing across several genres.

Negro Swan also suffers when Hynes takes the focus off himself – from an incongruous guest verse from A$AP Rocky to a dazed, frankly lazy Puff Daddy feature. The most successful collaboration on Negro Swan is ‘Out Of Your League’, where Hynes and wunderkind du-jour Steve Lacy inject a dose of strutting funk into the album’s slow, occasionally ponderous second half.

‘Out Of Your League’ works because Hynes are Lacy are both comfortable to cede the spotlight – unlike A$AP Rocky. His phoned-in “pussy talk” verse on ‘Chewing Gum’, alongside Southern rap legend Project Pat, feels particularly bone-headed in the face of the album’s more complex and dissociative themes and explorations of depression and trauma.

 

Is It Easier Being Max Martin Or Taylor Swift?

AT this point in his career, and with such a proven track record of influencing pop music over the past 10 years, there’s no questioning Hynes’ talent, ability to work with disparate collaborators, and skill for crafting timeless pop songs.

He also seems like a properly good guy. In a recent New York Times profile he comes across as both refreshingly casual and unpretentious, not to mention a former youth football star.

Perhaps influential and truly polymathic musicians like Hynes don’t always make their best music for themselves.

But Negro Swan doesn’t feel like a particularly impressive showcase for his own brand of insouciant cool. Part of this could be its experimentation with non pop-structures, the antithesis of where previous Blood Orange records and Hynes’ collaborations have found their simplistic beauty within.

Perhaps it’s also the fault of his previous record Freetown Sound, which increasingly seems like a career peak and one which Negro Swan feels slightly like a facsimile of.

Or perhaps influential and truly polymathic musicians like Hynes don’t always make their best music for themselves, but instead work best in multi-faceted and differing situations? Is it easier being Max Martin or Taylor Swift?

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On Negro Swan, Hynes deliberately steps away from the music he’s been so successful and intrinsically skilled at making.

And while tasteful, achingly-pretty and inherently likeable at times, it feels like the first time there’s been a degree of stagnation in his work.

Where he goes to next – whether it’s writing and producing with other artists, or another project name altogether (Blood Orange is his second solo project after the very late-2000s folk of Lightspeed Champion) – is difficult to predict.

But given his track record it’s hard not to be invested in his next album being his best.

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