Blood On the Tracks

2.10.2014

By Jason Lamphier

How Blood Orange (a.k.a. Devonté Hynes) became an unlikely savior of pop music—and gave us a modern gay classic

Hynes became infatuated with New York City at 17, particularly the 1980s Harlem ballroom and vogue scenes depicted in Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. The stories of the now-legendary drag queens and trans performers like Octavia St. Laurent and Exotica, outcasts struggling to find their voices and be heard, struck a chord with Hynes, then an outcast himself. Later, when he released his first Blood Orange record, Coastal Grooves, he included a song, “Sutphin Boulevard,” which was based on both Paris Is Burning and his move to New York City; he wrote the demo for it while simultaneously editing together a video of his favorite scenes from the movie. He also reached out to photographer Brian Lantelme, who chronicled the trans and drag circuit at Sally’s Hideaway, a 1980s Times Square nightclub, to secure rare black-and-white archival shots for the artwork associated with the record.

If Coastal Grooves offered up a clear homage to a particular moment in queer history, Blood Orange’s follow-up, Cupid Deluxe, pays tributes to the queer experience in a more nuanced, poignant way. “Uncle ACE,” one of the album’s catchiest, most upbeat tracks, rides along a rollicking funk-disco beat with sultry sax and crisp guitars reminiscent of the deft fretwork of Chic’s Nile Rodgers, but its subject matter is the record’s most somber. Hynes wrote the song after reading “Netherland,” a 2012 New Yorker feature revealing that up to 40% of the nation’s homeless youth are LGBT. “Uncle ACE” is the nickname some of these youth living in New York have given the ACE, a trio of subway lines running from northern Manhattan to the outer reaches of Queens that many of them call home in the late hours of the night. “I’ve got a great idea / Losing my sense of where,” sings Hynes, the lyrics describing “a sense of not knowing who you are in general,” he explains, adding that he had brief experiences with homelessness himself, not knowing where he’d spend the night.

The song specifically addresses homeless youth who resort to prostitution to survive. “Not like the other girls / Go home and wait for me / I’ll be there after 5 / The others got that V” goes one couplet, “that V” being slang for HIV. “I have friends, sex workers and transgender sex workers, and I hear the stories they tell and the things they’ve been through,” says Hynes, who wrote “Uncle ACE” from the perspective of one these companions. “The rumors that get sprouted so they can go home with people are crazy and vicious. They say people have HIV who don’t.”

Yet it’s also the artist’s stylistic choices that imbue the album with a sort of sexual fluidity or genderlessness. Whether he considers himself a singer of not, Hynes’s voice is tender, vulnerable, and arresting. It moves from breathless gasps to hushed whispers to high falsetto coos, lending Cupid Deluxe the same sort of androgyny that helped make Prince’s Dirty Mind and Purple Rain queer touchstones. On an album full of slick, organic-sounding pairings — including some with his new favorite muse, his girlfriend, Urbani — the most alluring and sensual are Hynes’s duets with other men: On “No Right Thing,” he joins Dirty Projectors front man Dave Longstreth to deliver the line “But you look away, and I look to you…that’s where we are”; later, on the song “On the Line,” a call-and-response track between Hynes and his frequent collaborator Adam Bainbridge (of indie electronic act Kindness), Bainbridge pleads, “Tell me if we’re on the line,” with Hynes replying, “Are we through?” Meanwhile, the album’s literal centerpiece, “Chosen” — a seven-minute stunner stocked with choir vocals, a smoky saxophone, and a spoken-word intro read in a French female accent — finds Hynes achingly uttering the phrase, “It’s in the way that he moves, but I don’t want to choose.”

Cupid Deluxe’s most potent and sincere offering, however, might be its closer, “Time Will Tell,” which reprises lines from an earlier track, “It Is What It Is.” It’s the closest Hynes comes to expressing hope or resolution on the album, and its lyrics seem almost too perfect when considered from the point of view of an experienced narrator speaking to a confused, closeted teen: “Time will tell if you can figure this and work it out / No one’s waiting for you anyway so don’t be stressed now / Even if it’s something that you’ve had your eye on, it is what it is.”

Tags: Music
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