A man repetitively bellowing “I love you” during otherwise silent moments was the one crowd member out of step with the mood at Dev Hynes’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire show – a lush, often blissfully muted affair that marked the musical renaissance man’s first UK show since 2016.
Known professionally as Blood Orange, Hynes found fame as a wildly successful music producer. He emerged as a critical figure in modern pop via collaborations with the likes of Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sky Ferreira and FKA Twigs, laying the groundwork for a sub-genre of spacey and immersive pop-R&B that may not dominate the charts but has garnered a significant cult fanbase. It’s those tracks (such as Losing You and Better Than Me) that you’re more likely to have heard, but his solo material has also long been of equal importance, an exhilarating fusion of instruments and genres often anchored by deeply introspective lyrics.
Born in London but calling New York home since 2007, the 32-year-old (of Guyanese and Sierra Leonean descent) has been open about his uneasy relationship with the UK, having experienced racism and bullying as a child growing up in east London, and revealing at the New Yorker Festival last year that he at one point in time regularly crossed the street whenever he spotted English flags hung up in pub windows. The presence of a small Union Jack throughout his O2 Empire show, then – either slung over the top of his piano or alternatively planted on top of his head – felt particularly pointed, Hynes reclaiming an object whose close cousin once filled him with fear and feelings of alienation.
It was similarly a fitting visual cue for a setlist steeped in tracks from Hynes’s fourth and most recent record Negro Swan, a dizzying and melancholic album driven by themes of trauma, survival and the eternal pain of existing within society’s fringes. Signature tracks from his discography, including Chamakay and You’re Not Good Enough, were present and accounted for, but Hynes’s newest work hit the hardest emotional beats – yearning R&B that often resembles love jams by way of Twin Peaks, full of dreamy Angelo Badalamenti-style synths and lyrics comprised of romantic longing and male vulnerability.
On stage, many were transformed by Hynes’s live band. The Eighties pop melodies became stabbier, vocals were stretched and echoed, and flourishes of sax provided occasional moments of Prince-style melodrama. Highlighting his vast creative range, Hynes oscillated between instruments, gracing the piano for a brief, lovely Nina Simone cover, and bringing the house down with several fiery electric guitar solos. What Hynes may lack in showmanship he more than makes up for in sheer craft.
An introverted performer with a soft, tricky-to-hear speaking voice only occasionally directed at his audience, Hynes took a while to loosen up, finding greater comfort when ceding the spotlight to others. But the skills of his two backup singers also helped compensate for his more detached tendencies. Eva Tolkin’s rich, crystalline-clear vocals added blissful weight to numerous songs, while Ian Isiah’s gorgeous take on the standout Negro Swan track Holy Will effectively transformed the sold-out venue into a Gospel church.
It was an appropriate effect. More and more, modern alt-pop gigs have come to embody safe havens for the very same social outsiders and minorities that Hynes himself has come to represent: people of colour, often queer, and often rejecting traditional gender tropes. Bathed in millennial pinks and flashing red and blue floodlights, this was a crowd hanging on every word, finding rapture in the naked emotion on stage and embracing a tragically short detour into a world free of judgment, ridicule or pain. Even the most cold-hearted would have a difficult time resisting.