Blood Orange Finds Liberation in Limitation on ‘Angel’s Pulse’

It has been just short of a year since Dev Hynes, better known as Blood Orange, released his ambitiously eclectic, socially incisive fourth album “Black Swan.” For restlessly creative artists, the inspiration that lingers after a record’s release must be quickly channeled before it dissipates. Consequently, Hynes has found himself, over the years, chasing album releases with adjunct recordings, casually whipped-together. Primarily an outlet for residual energy, these works typically never saw an official release. This time, however, Hynes has gone a step further, following his last album with his first mixtape, “Angel’s Pulse.” While the ambiguous term “mixtape” is tossed around casually, assuming various nebulous meanings, it’s a perfect descriptor for the work at hand, a loosely structured set of short pieces that strike more as a product of action on instinct than laborious crafting. This isn’t to imply that they are slipshod in any way. If anything, the freeness of format allows for an especially thorough conceptual realization. Moreover, this phenomenon of finding liberation in limitation permeates not only the music but the general lyrical theme.  

Spacious, languid opener “I Wanna C U” sets the tone, taking a step back from all the frenzy of “Negro Swan.” It’s a meditative pause, with just drums, bass, and prickly guitar, playing with a losseness that gives the sense of a band slightly disassembled, unscrewed at the ends. Hynes immediately stakes his claim with his signature androgynous vocals, but this time keeps the lyrics generally opaque, inviting the listener to project as desired. There’s a seamless transition into “Something to Do,” an interlude consisting mainly of some wild, knotty guitar dueling, over a placid backdrop and looped snippets of the titular phrase. Come the third piece, “Dark & Handsome,” featuring Chaz Bundick aka Toro y Moi, there is certainly a mixtape feel — a free-flowing casualness to the sequencing that gives a distinct mood. The song is restrained and laidback, all pastels and mist. Whereas the first couple tracks stuck to spare, sustained ruminations, this is the first with a fleshed out set of lyrics from Hynes. The artist has suffered the loss of several close friends, including the late Mac Miller, and the experience makes its way into lyrics that he has described as about “grief, death, and suicide.” As for the relevance of the title, interpret away. The atmospheric background vocals are a bit like the Auto-tune-gone-wild craze that has found its way into every chart-topping hip-hop album this year, except distilled to a subtle mist that brings out all of the essence without the overbearing gurgle. Little incidentals like a random, fleeting distortion of vocals capture the stream of consciousness feel to which the song owes much of its effect. Bundick just drops a few lines, but his sharp voice stands out enough alongside Hynes’ breathy utterances to make it enough. A thrilling bit comes at the end with Bundick’s voice pitched down, into DJ Screw-esque, codeine territory, for a mere few seconds.

The jazzy chords and ambient conversation continue to flow, and “Benzo” settles deeper into the emergent mood. Saxophone lines that overlap lazily — in the best possible way, along with the listless singing and music, convey a certain surrender. This number is all about the mix, with skittering drums swaying boldly from left to right in panning, as the other instruments linger in open spaces, giving a feeling of disassociation. There’s a sudden abrupt pause, for the first time in four tracks, upon the entrance of guest singer Kelsey Lu. In an instant, the mellow jazz chords resurface and the environment is as serene as before, but the momentary gap is enough to startle the listener in anticipation of the gravity that is to come. Things suddenly get somber on “Birmingham,” which adapts lyrics from Dudley Randall’s poem “Ballad of Burmingham,” about an atrocious 1960s church bombing in which four African American children were killed by white supremacist terrorists. In an otherwise sonically breezy album, this song strikes to the bone, with Lu giving Dudley’s poetry the full gospel treatment. Towards the end, another resplendent guest vocalist, Ian Isiah, belts, bellows, and takes it to a new dimension.

“Good For You” snaps back into the prevailing, deconstructed groove. It’s the most overtly R&B cut yet, with vocals from Justine Skye, who sings with such a rare fluidity that it makes sense that she actually freestyled the entire song. Still, it’s astounding that she managed to flesh it out in such a realized form. There’s spontaneity of instinct without any of the associated shabbiness in execution. “Baby Florence” is as much a mood piece as anything else on the mixtape, with resounding, designedly tacky electronic drums, a swarm of blending tones, and wispy, hovering vocals. Then, worlds collide. The perennial loungy backdrop continues unperturbed, but with a looped sample of Three Six Mafia’s Project Pat, of all people. It turns out Hynes contacted Pat to ask about sampling his song “Yeah Nigga,” and ended up getting both Pat and fellow Mafia member Gangsta Boo to rap on the track, along with a brief appearance from Tinashe. A collaboration from such distant sonic worlds could have eclipsed anything else on the mixtape. In this case, however, it falls short. Pat’s vocals, over the subdued, jazzy chords that have been ringing from the onset, simply sound awkward. Then again, they sounded a bit awkward even over their original beat. At any rate, it’s a surreal juxtaposition, enjoyable for at least its novelty. Gangsta Boo is a more palatable match, and Tinashe ties everything together with her airy, reverb-soaked voice complementing the hazy backdrop. 

“Berlin,” featuring indie outfit Porches is a definite highlight. Singer Aaron Maine sings a few vibrato lines over spiraling guitar arpeggios until a beat takes root, and Ian Isiah takes the mic again, for perhaps the most memorable vocal bit of the entire record. His spurts are so uniquely phrased that it’s easy to mistake him for singing in another language. Hynes joins, this time in spoken word form, his sonorous tone worlds away from his usual gossamer falsetto. The song ends with him and Maine in harmony over fragile guitar scrapings, each sounding radically different, but sharing a certain unidentifiable sensibility. Keeping up the momentum is “Tuesday Feeling,” a summery cut with some delightfully Intricate guitar, and Hynes sounding suddenly quite a lot like Michael Jackson, as Tinashe fills the space with vivacious, melismatic adlibs. 

“Seven Hours Part 1” features a nonstop flow from Florida rapper Benny Revival, whose delivery vaguely recalls that of Andre 3000 from the early days of Outkast, while his no-nonsense, unrelenting spurt of rapping strikes like a refreshing quick flashback to a time when hip-hop was less adulterated. Hynes builds a beat over a jazzy backdrop of meandering basslines and light ambiance that nods to the legacy of such acts as A Tribe Called Quest. This aesthetic bleeds into the following number, “Take It Back” which skirt around the established aura, delving deeper into trip-hop stylings, with its echoing, mumbled vocals, soulful singing from Justin Skye and sluggish breakbeat sounding as lift from Massive Attack’s songbook. Midway, it goes further leftfield than anything yet, to the credit of the avant electronic mastermind Arca. This track finds the Venezuelan artist singing in Spanish, his haunting melodies resonating over a beat that creaks, stutters, and hiccups, until a grounded verse from rapper JOBA hijacks the beat and shifts things somewhat back to center. 

The entire mixtape is encapsulated in the two final cuts, which function together as an elegant, if cryptic, statement of intent. After all the murky darkness of the preceding track, “Happiness” comes as a burst of light disco radiance cupped and clipped, played from a few levels removed. Hynes’ gleeful tone and gliding melodies belie the refrain of “Happiness will fade.” As the visionary has specified, however, the lyrics are about finding freedom in letting go. Acceptance of the fact that happiness will fade, ironically, becomes a source of happiness in of itself, in turn facilitating a purposefulness that is the titular “Angel’s Pulse.” And if this entire mixtape is an afterthought to “Negro Swan,” the ethereal “Today” is the final breath within that. A brief meditation over wheezing synths, it pans out gently with lyrics that stay unabashedly dark, although presumably still directed obliquely. Hynes sighs, “Big mistake in stepping out, nothing good today,” a sentiment that invites contextualization within the sociopolitical dismay that ran through “Negro Swan.” In light of the aforementioned “Happiness,” however, it’s nothing more than a cool brushing aside of circumstance, to get on with business, and keep the music playing. 

Angel’s Pulse” is available July 12 on Apple Music.