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Pitchfork Music Festival: Blood Orange Plays Negro Swan Songs To A Hero’s Welcome

Freetown Sound was a legend-confirming album. Dev Hynes’ 2016 album as Blood Orange proved that his 2013 breakout Cupid Deluxe was no fluke. Nor was Hynes just an artsy pop-star whisperer capable of boosting the likes of Solange and Sky Ferreira to new heights. He was a legit auteur with limitless possibilities.

The reception he received Saturday at Pitchfork Music Festival confirmed that understanding. When Hynes arrived onstage, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Backed by just a vibrant, unmistakable drum machine loop, he sat down at a keyboard and began singing “Everything Is Embarrassing,” the 2012 Ferreira single that served as a launchpad for both Ferreira and Hynes. That song was an appropriate starting point because along with Solange’s True EP — and perhaps more so than Blood Orange’s 2011 debut album Coastal Grooves — it properly rung in former indie-rocker Hynes’ new era as a pivotal figure in modern pop. As he proved with the rest of Saturday’s set, he’s done a lot to affirm that reputation in the years since.

After “Everything Is Embarrassing,” the rest of the band showed up and things got properly underway. Hynes recruited a drummer, bassist, keyboard-guitar utility man, a brass and woodwind player, and two backup singers to enliven and transform his songs. They essentially turned the dreamy disco-funk jam “Desirée” into a Chic track, with Hynes stepping into the Nile Rodgers role to rip through one of the day’s many guitar solos. The brisk drum programming from the studio version of “Better Than Me” gave way way to steady, driving bass and a breathtaking flourish of soft-rock sax. A mostly faithful “Chamakay” had a lovely sax breakdown at the end as well, and the vocal duet at the heart of the song was one example of how much room Hynes allowed his singers to shine.

That trend of turning over the spotlight to the backup vocalists continued into fan favorite “Best To You,” a tune originally sung by Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez. Mostly freed up from microphone duties, Hynes focused his attention on fast-paced staccato keyboard stabs reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.” The effect here was just as wistfully exhilarating, and it reminded me what a vast constellation of reference points Hynes is able to boil down into his own sophisticated pan-global pop. Born in London to parents from Sierra Leone and Guyana and now based in New York, he’s moved just as readily across musical boundaries dating all the way back to his old dance-punk band Test Icicles. Nowadays he’s painting in softer hues and textures, blending a wide spectrum of sounds into something truly unique.

Over the years that eclectic vision has progressively evolved into a celebration of global black culture and creativity. The videos accompanying Blood Orange’s performance emphasized that point. Behind Hynes and company was a collage of footage including street racers popping wheelies on dirtbikes and four-wheelers, group dance routines, trucks and sports cars doing donuts for excited crowds of onlookers, an archival OutKast interview with André and Big Boi lounging on a couch in someone’s home, and old Lil Bow Wow and Jada Pinkett music videos. A similar spirit informed the new songs Blood Orange performed from the just-announced Negro Swan — an album Hynes has called “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color,” but one that underlines those struggles with hope.

“Nappy Wonder,” which came next in the setlist, made its black pride implicit from the title on down. Debuted at a handful of shows last year and now presented as a preview of the new album, it’s a spare and chilly Prince homage built around the mantra — if I’m hearing it right — “My feelings never had no ethics.” A study in rising action, it ascended into passages of discordant noise and, eventually, virtuosic shredding worthy of the Purple one himself. “Charcoal Baby,” which emerged later in the set, plunges even deeper into Negro Swan’s stated themes. It turned out to be the genesis of the new album’s title, Hynes and his associates singing “No one wants to be the negro swan” after a laidback R&B groove topped off with funky rhythm guitar morphed into moody synth-pop. Hynes even burst into what might be a quotation of Alicia Keys’ “No One.”

Elsewhere in the set, the magnificent “Champagne Coast” closed out with Hynes and his fellow guitarist seated side by side, locked into a duet of nervy Afro-pop sounds. The xylophone-powered “It Is What It Is” expanded into what I can only describe as measured but euphoric live house music. “You’re Not Good Enough” tastefully leveraged slap bass at the mirage-like intersection of R&B and new wave. And the funky Herbie Hancock keyboard squelches of “E.V.P.” ended the set in party mode, the whole ensemble grooving hard with ebullient expressions. Their hard-earned joy was reflected back at them, their audience beaming at the chance to behold one of the most vital acts in music today unfolding in all its splendor.