At a time when some of the biggest pop artists are grappling with weighty problems like racism, Dev Hynes — who records deeply personal, highly influential R&B under the name Blood Orange — pushes further, adding liberated meditations on black masculinity, sexuality and faith to the conversation. His particular brand of openness is evident in his resolute concern with these issues. And how, if you see him in New York — wandering the East Village taking photos or playing ping-pong in his favorite pool hall — he’s always up for a conversation. “I usually want to talk to [fans] more than they want to talk to me,” says the 30-year-old singer, laughing. “I don’t read reviews and I don’t play many shows, so it’s the only way I get a sense of what people are thinking.”
Maybe because of those conversations, and many more he has had through social media, an awareness bloomed while he was putting together his third Blood Orange LP, Freetown Sound, which came out in June. “Because of where I am in my career, I was aware that people would listen,” says Hynes, who grew up in an immigrant family in London before moving to New York in 2009. “It made me want to be more assertive.” The resulting LP is an ambitious, achingly pretty statement that also happens to ponder blackness, sexual identity and more when some of the biggest stars in music are grappling with similar issues. “I was just thinking of how amazing that is,” says Hynes of recent LPs by Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Rihanna. (In a tweet, Hynes — who has said that he identifies as neither gay nor straight — noted that his album “is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated.”) Freetown Sound is built from pulsing, ’80s-tinged R&B — produced and largely played by Hynes, with vocal assists from friends like Carly Rae Jepsen, Debbie Harry and Nelly Furtado — that calls to mind everything from Sade and Sly & Robbie to Prince and Trevor Horn. It’s all stitched together, strikingly, with voices pulled from a Black Lives Matter protest, the legendary drag queen documentary Paris Is Burning and many other sources. “He’s a true artist,” says Jepsen, who’s working with Hynes on her next album. “He’s got a different kind of light to him, and everyone around him is affected by it.” Or as Hynes puts it: “It’s important for me to be myself. In some ways being unabashedly yourself is a political statement.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.