It’s 5AM. You’re standing on a train platform alone in the middle of a savanna. You’re not quite sure why you’re here or where you’re going. A train vibrates in the distance, slowly appearing out of the nighttime haze. You think about how the grass in the nearby fields must be damp with morning dew. You want to touch it and feel the sharp cold on your fingertips. But you are rooted in the hard cement of the platform. The train rushes by and even as it floods you with its lights, you can’t be sure it’s real. You start laughing uncontrollably. What the hell is a train doing in the middle of nowhere?
This is the sort of evocative head trip that occurs when listening to Angel’s Pulse, the new mixtape from Blood Orange. Trains appear out of thin air; walking down city streets become slow-motion glides through a golden cyberspace, potted flowers cheering and waving from skyscraper balconies. This is what gorgeous impressionistic music does – it transforms your surroundings. It makes you see in the instruments and vocals something else entirely, outside of whether it sounds good, or what that sample is, or how slow the beat is. It plunges you headfirst into a scene, any scene; whatever the patchwork of textures evokes in your mind.
Making this music is no easy feat. It’s a slick simulation, where each song and vibe connect perfectly with the next and act as agents of change in this living, breathing, symbiotic whole, convincing the listener of the integrity of the scene. Avant-garde R&B singer-soundmaker Devonté Hynes, working as Blood Orange, wills together the beautiful and the ugly; the uplifting and the depressing. He’s like a stage director, managing a cast entirely made up of indescribable emotions from an art house bootleg of Pixar's Inside Out, all of which he wonderfully and effortlessly choreographs. Each song rambles on in its own beautiful way, almost as if it doesn’t care whether you’re listening to it or not.
On the flipside, this elusive emotionality might just represent a reluctance from Hynes to commit to anything concrete, instead deciding to wallow somewhere in the middle of all these disparate psychological domains. Hynes might appear to first time listeners as something of a paranoiac, switching moods and genres, vocalists and instruments with the furtive speed of someone being closely watched. Songs like “I Wanna C U,” as light and springy as a brand new pair of shoes, coexist with the claustrophobic “Seven Hours Part 1,” which has a beat that sounds strangled by a too tight collar. You’d be forgiven for being really confused at first, especially if you’re not already a fan of arty R&B-ists like Hynes or those of his ilk, like Jai Paul. But Hynes knows what he’s doing. He often speaks in interviews about being intentionally ambiguous in his work, deliberately leaving meanings obscure and flitting between genres. It’s his vibe, a sort of willful refusal of the homogeneity that pop and the radio demands. You could probably listen to the mixtape in any order and have a different yet similarly enchanting ride each time.
The only thing not obscure in Hynes’ work is his overarching concern with pain, specifically black pain and LGBTQ pain. His music is often a symposium of voices and experiences, with Hynes sampling stories and recordings related to the sufferings of oppressed folk, including his own. However, this new project isn’t really a parable of torment, especially when compared to his last album proper: 2018’s searing Negro Swan, which he described as an exploration of black depression. Instead, Angel’s Pulse is almost like a dream. The dream of a sound to yourself, a world to yourself. A calm between a storm – or a parallel world without storms. There are enough genres and enough textures in here for everyone. No prejudice, no pain; just sounds.
From beginning to end, Hynes takes you to a faraway land, outside of the troubles of your daily life and into a place where you are comfortable in your own skin. Infinite beauty, in the form of woozy guitar chords and velvety vocals await on songs like “Good For You”; chilled drums dapple you like bedtime lullabies on the elegant “Baby Florence (Figure)”; on “Dark & Handsome,” Hynes and Toro y Moi take you to the school dance and spin you around like the queen you are. By the time the project has rushed by, you can’t be sure it was real.