This Blood Orange Tiny Desk is a beautifully conceived concert showing off the craft and care that has made Devonté Hynes a groundbreaking producer and songwriter. It’s a distillation of themes found on Dev Hynes’ fourth album as Blood Orange, titled Negro Swan. Themes of identity, both sexual and racial, through the eyes of a black East Londoner (now living in New York) run through this album and concert. Dev Hynes is a composer who fits as comfortably in the worlds of R&B, gospel and electronics as he does in the classical world of someone like Philip Glass.
The opening song at the Tiny Desk, “By Ourselves,” features Dev Hynes on piano, Jason Arce on saxophone, Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah on vocals along with a powerful spoken word performance by Ashlee Haze. Ashlee’s story is a tale of finding herself and her identity in the words and music of Missy Elliott when she was, in Ashlee’s own words, an eight-year old, “fat black girl from Chicago” who discovered “she could dance until she felt pretty” and “be a woman playing a man’s game.”
“Jewelry,” the second song performed, welcomes Mikey Freedom Hart on piano while Dev moves on to electric guitar and vocals reminiscent of a languid Jimi Hendrix, with soul-baring lyrics of pride. The group then offers a rendition of “Holy Will,” inspired by the Detroit gospel group The Clark Sisters, as singer Ian Isiah takes this song of praise to a whole new level.
Blood Orange ends as a trio on the final song, “Dagenham Dream.” Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah are on vocals; Dev Hynes works an organ sound while singing about being beaten and bullied as a school kid in his hometown of Dagenham in east London. The power of each of these songs is magnified by the way Blood Orange has woven this performance together. He’s a rich, rare and caring talent we first met 11 years ago in a grassy field in Austin, Texas back when he still used the moniker Lightspeed Champion. Now his thoughts are deeper, his message of finding one’s place in this world more deep-seated, with a clarity few artists ever achieve.
Devonté Hynes - Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Keyboards
Ashlee Haze - Spoken Word
Eva Tolkin - Vocals
Ian Isiah - Vocals
Jason Arce - Saxophone, Bass clarinet
Mikey Freedom Hart - Piano, Keyboards
Producers: Bob Boilen, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kaylee Domzalski, CJ Riculan, Kara Frame; Production Assistant: Brie Martin; Photo: Heather Kim/NPR