Blood Orange’s Cupid Deluxe, out this week via Domino, is the culminating triumph of a long, strange decade for Devonté Hynes. Before finding his groove as a voguing, Prince-channeling soft-focus retro R&B mastermind, Hynes bounced from Houston to London to NYC, donning a number of guises along the way: teenage dance-punk, oddball folk-pop singer-songwriter, misty post-chillwave super-producer, author/illustrator/photographer, covers artist extraordinaire. He’s one of his generation’s slipperiest creative forces, but he dedicates himself completely to whichever persona he’s adopting at the moment, in full command of his chosen aesthetic. To borrow a phrase once preached to another guy prone to self-reinvention, there are no half-measures in Hynes’ world.
That makes his career arc utterly fascinating. To observe the full scope of Hynes’ musical output is to stare at a mosaic in sharply contrasting tones; it’s hard to believe the pieces all came from the same place. But in another way, his progression makes sense. It’s the work of a young talent fumbling about, experimenting, trying his hand at all kinds of sounds and feels until he strikes gold. With Cupid Deluxe, he’s hit the motherlode. Let’s track how he got there.
Test Icicles – “All You Need Is Blood” (2005)
After moving from Houston to Edinburgh to London while growing up, in 2004 an 18-year-old Hynes joined Rory Atwell and Sam Mehran to form Test Icicles, a band with a joke name and a gimmick genre. “All You Need Is Blood,” included on the band’s first 7-inch and its only full-length, 2005′s For Screening Purposes Only, is one of Hynes’ first writing credits. Like most music by teenagers, it was deeply influenced by the trends of the time, which in this case meant the dance-punk movement that had spread from the U.S. to the U.K. Upon the band’s breakup in 2006, Hynes told the NME, “We were never, ever that keen on the music. I understand that people liked it, but we personally, er, didn’t.” That explains why most of the trio’s output was competent but not inspired, and why Hynes was about to morph into an entirely different sort of performer.
Lightspeed Champion – “Galaxy Of The Lost” (2007)
After Test Icicles melted away with the last gasps of the dance-punk craze, Hynes reemerged as a solo artist playing a brand of singer-songwriter pop that was a far cry from his old band’s angular clatter. Reborn as Lightspeed Champion, he wore preppy sweaters and ties, blew his hair out into an unimaginable poof and hung out with puppets and cats in music videos. More importantly, he teamed up with Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis for 2008′s Falling Off The Lavender Bridge, an album that crossbred late-period Oberstian folk-rock with chamber pop. The lead single was 2007′s “Galaxy Of The Lost,” the aforementioned puppets and cats video, which matched the highs of Badly Drawn Boy’s hi-fi period and showed Hynes was capable of constructing a massive chorus. He was zeroing in on his pop pedigree, but the version of Hynes presented here is still a far cry from what he would become down the line.
Lightspeed Champion – “Marlene” (2010)
By the time of his second Lightspeed Champion LP, 2010′s Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You, Hynes was starting to resemble the artist we’ve come to know as Blood Orange in terms of sight and sound. The cartoonish prep fashion gave way to stylish minimalism, Monster Of Folk Mike Mogis was replaced as producer by sleek indie-rock maestro Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Deerhunter), and bass-popping ’80s pop-R&B production was starting to creep into his music. But lead single “Marlene” shows the transformation was far from complete. The soaring chorus was still very much in the mode of Lightspeed Champion’s signature mid-aughts folk-pop, the rhythm section was as much a callback to the Test Icicles sound as the foggy-lens dance music Hynes would one day embrace, and even though Hynes was starting to look like one suave motherfucker, the nerd glasses were still in play.
Blood Orange – “Dinner” (2011)
In 2011, with a non-album single on Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor’s Terrible Records, Hynes unveiled his latest guise. Blood Orange was distinct from anything he’d previously released; pegged as his new electronic project, this was actually more like a pitch-perfect pastiche of New Wave, R&B, and early hip-hop that instantly rendered Hynes as Prince for the chillwave generation. This was an incredibly timely change-up, but it also seemed to flow naturally from Hynes in a way none of his previous personas had.
Blood Orange – “Sutphin Boulevard” (2011)
Blood Orange’s debut album, 2011′s Coastal Grooves, further fleshed out the project’s world, revealing inspiration from 1980s vogue ball culture. In particular, the video for bass-thumping, reverb-inflected lead single “Sutphin Boulevard” drove this home by surrounding Hynes with androgynous characters donning glamorous wardrobes plucked from dressing rooms and mannequins. It also introduced Hynes as a frontman to be reckoned with, a showman capable of rocking the mic with seductive swagger.
Sky Ferreira – “Everything Is Embarrassing” (2012)
Hynes teamed up with Ariel Rechtshaid to produce “Everything Is Embarrassing” for Sky Ferreira’s Ghost EP. The steady-rocking programmed beat, lush keyboard smears and funk bass were a perfect fit for Ferreira after a half-decade of false starts, launching her indie-darling era and putting Hynes on the radar as an in-demand producer.
Solange – “Losing You” (2012)
If co-producing “Everything Is Embarrassing” made Hynes a hot commodity, collaborating with Solange’s True EP made him an underground sensation. From lead single “Losing You” on down, the EP was a fully realized world of sound, the perfect fit for Solange after years of unfulfilled promise. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Hynes managed to jump start three separate careers with his Blood Orange transformation: His own, Ferreira’s and Solange’s. His creative chemistry with Solange is especially infectious; watching them perform together at SXSW was among the year’s most joyful endorphin rushes.
Blood Orange – “Chamakay” (2013)
Blood Orange’s sophomore LP Cupid Deluxe an album of bold, confident gestures. Sonically, it’s fuller and flashier than Coastal Grooves, bolstered by contributions from music royalty ranging from Dirty Projectors mastermind Dave Longstreth to cloud rap super-producer Clams Casino. Even as he expertly triangulates the Blood Orange sound, Hynes continues to reveal new dimensions. He’s still discovering them himself; in the “Chamakay” video, he takes us along as he visits Georgetown, Guyana, his mother’s hometown, and meets his grandfather for the first time. It’s a powerful clip, and it suggests that even with Hynes in full bloom, there’s more evolution in store.