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Blood Orange
Cupid Deluxe Amy Pettifer , November 22nd, 2013 10:00

For the strutting, voguing children of the Harlem Drag Ball scene, featured in Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning, the fantasy was not just about spotlights and trophies. It was about getting closer to the lifestyles that were off limits: the business exec, the spoilt suburban housewife, the college prep. The dressing up wasn't pantomime or parody; it was a sincere attempt at simulation, a life in pursuit of the elusive concept of 'realness'.

Since 2004, Devonté 'Dev' Hynes has been similarly searching for the persona that he wears most comfortably. He played a convincing nu rave hipster with Test Icicles, a bonafide craftsman of jangling, acoustic melodies as Lightspeed Champion and, most recently, has emerged with seamless grace as a lithe, soulful specimen under the moniker Blood Orange; an achingly clever songsmith and producer, in possession of the iconic moves of Willi Ninja and the satin smooth groove of early Prince. Call it 'mid-tempo realness', if you like - and no one can say he's not a dedicated study.

Now firmly settled in New York, Hynes has fully absorbed the timbres of his surroundings (shimmering R&B vocal licks, Studio 54 bass beats, hazed out G-funk) as well as deftly curating the talents of his peers. He has a track record of falling in with the right crowds and, on Cupid Deluxe, the likes of Dirty Projectors, Chairlift, Skepta and Clams Casino are all given transformative roles; most notably Samantha Urbani of Friends, who acts as a vocal foil for Hynes and sounds more transcendent and engaging that she ever has done on her own band's output.

Hynes' vocals, luscious as they may be, are just another drop in the chorus he's assembled. In his constant transfer of personas, perhaps the unaccompanied revelation of his own voice feels too exposing; in a recent press clip he can be heard dubbing over a filmed interview with new, error-free answers that smooth out the kinks of an off-the-cuff presence. Unsurprisingly then, his personality really asserts itself - and seems most comfortable - in his songwriting and production, with his plethora of influences forming themselves into an auteur's practice that's becoming instantly recognisable. A recurrent four chord structure that's pure, bittersweet pop alchemy underpins the entire record and might just be Hynes' trademark; you can pick it out as the same underscore to Solange Knowles' 2012 hit 'Losing You' which he also wrote and produced.

This sense of a circular, universal pop narrative is enhanced by the fact that two of the tracks, 'It Is What It Is' and 'Time Will Tell', share the same reflective chorus, bookending the album's contemplation of un-fixed selfhood and fleeting love. In fact, every chorus is one you can croon - instantaneous hooks wriggle free of stuttering percussion, delay-heavy hand-claps, mournful sax and glimmering keys - while the equal presence and layering of boy/girl vocals make the whole thing seem fearlessly androgynous, possessed of an immersive mood of liminal sexuality and persona.

If this latest incarnation is just another escape, it's a trophy-worthy act of realness, a tender, melancholy and sometimes naïve homage to a mood and mode of life that's clearly captured Hynes' imagination. Despite the transience, this is the most settled and mature his work has ever sounded. To put it another way, it's a look that suits, and you hope it sticks.