Devonté Hynes is the Prince of the 2010s.
Devonté Hynes is the Prince of the 2010s. That’s not a lazy label meant to skirt the labor of substantive criticism—his songs as Blood Orange are so clearly influenced by the Purple One that any reviewer would have to willfully exclude it from the conversation. Hynes doesn’t just strut around Prince drag, though, piggybacking on the proven success of sweaty-sexy funk jams and falsetto-graced pop behemoths. He understands the things that made Prince great—his passion, sexual ambiguity, mastery of analog instruments, and the slippery way his songs play with time—and funnels them through his own talents. The comparison sticks because Blood Orange is a fully-fleshed project that walks a path that Prince laid out instead of some guy who saw Purple Rain and thought, “I could do that.”
Hynes is currently touring in support of 2016’s magnificent Freetown Sound, which pushed Blood Orange’s sound to new droopy R&B heights while interpolating sounds from world music and spoken samples from the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates. His sold-out September 16th date at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club saw him operating at peak powers: every note, every stomp, every improvised riff stuck its landing and stirred up rowdy adoration. By the time he closed the night with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother,” it was difficult not to be hyperbolic.
Maybe it isn’t hyperbole, though. Hynes is an unbelievably assured performer. His stage banter supports his public image as an introverted Big Thinker, and the tension between that timidity and his strength in the spotlight is endlessly compelling. He spent the full set slinking around Paradise’s small stage, letting complex footwork and unbearably smooth hip movements fall out of him with no visible effort. During “You’re Not Good Enough,” the evening’s most recognizable song off Blood Orange’s sophomore record Cupid Deluxe, he broke out a quasi-moonwalk. His disarming confidence alone was enough to convince the audience that we were witnessing one of the greats.
And then, of course, there’s the part of him that actually warrants the Prince comparison: his musical prowess. The stage featured a mic for Hynes, a keyboardist, drummer, guitarist and three backup singers (one of whom bizarrely opened the show with a half-improvised cover of Cher’s “Believe”), and by the end of the night, Hynes had done a stint at everything but the drums. From a shredding guitar solo on a bonkers cover from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to a improv-jazz interlude on the keys during “You’re Not Good Enough,” Hynes managed to showcase his dizzying talents without becoming indulgent. Several sections felt free in a liberated sense, not a “listen to us jam while you knock back another vodka Red Bull” sense.
Liberation, in fact, is probably Hynes’ most compelling feature. Like Prince, his work feels free. Parts of Freetown Sound deal with breaking out of limiting thought patterns, or more literally limiting geographical circumstance (he writes about his parents’ immigration in several spots). There’s a queerness to his videos, his presence, the delightfully androgynous way he wraps himself around a musical phrase. Watching him feels a lot like breaking out of a personal prison, whatever the shape.