The Knockturnal’s Summer Bops: The Sweet Sadness of Blood Orange’s “Charcoal Baby”

You’re at a party, tossing drinks back, pretending you know how to dance, and suddenly, the aux is passed to you. A pit grows in your stomach. 

“Play something good,” your friend shouts over the speakers, but you can’t quite make out the words. The anxiety starts to works its way up. Your head gets a little foggy. Time slows down to a trickle, and then you begin feel alone, so alone, abandoned in the middle of a vast sea to be violently eaten by the jaws of criticism if you play the wrong thing.

Well, rest easy warriors of summer, because The Knockturnal is launching you a lifeboat with its “Summer Bops,” a weekly column dedicated to saving your ass whenever you need to impress that cute barista with the rare vinyl collection, or need that perfect song to complete that perfect party playlist you stayed up till 4am curating.

Trying to play the guessing game with Devonté “Dev” Hynes’ identity is like participating in a brain-twisting episode of Jeopardy from your couch––you’ll be wrong 90% of the time, but ultimately entertained, content with your own miscalculations because of the psychological payoff. What is that payoff? Being absolutely mystified by genius.

“Musical chameleon” has been resigned to the superfluous catalogue of the cliché by now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful phrase to describe Dev Hynes’ larger persona. When it comes to his solo career, he will never saunter down the lane of predicability. Whether its tempering the muscular arena-rock of Foals or crystallizing Carly Rae Jepsen’s glittery pop melodies, the uncanny strength and flexibility of his musical calisthenics is in high demand.

But as Blood Orange, Hynes is more than just the sum of his prolific output. His songs carry out a worthy task: they piece together––honestly and beautifully––the kaleidoscopic experience of blackness, bestowing listeners an experience that extends far beyond pure aestheticism.

On “Charcoal Baby,” the first release off of his upcoming album Negro Swan, Hynes continues his personal exploration of black identity, but in the context of queerness and the loneliness it can engender. “When you wake up / It’s not the first thing that you wanna know / Can you still count / All of the reasons that you’re not alone?,” goes the first verse, Hynes delicate voice crooning over the dreamlike splendor of woozy synths, shuffling drums, and an ambling guitar riff.

Insecurities are a natural part of life, but they often arrive when we are most physically vulnerable––waking up to morning’s hollow warmth, half-naked, alone. With all its emptiness and silence, the air of solitude can feel like carbon monoxide, its poison seeping into every organ, every cell. Hynes seems to be searching for a simple intimacy he longs for desperately––an outstretched hand, a strand of loose hair tucked over the ear. Anything, really. But the world casts its sympathies elsewhere, leaving Hynes to pluck his guitar in the shadows of his own melancholy.

Negro Swan arrives Friday, August 24th.

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