The bustle of the Lincoln Theatre crowd quiets as the stage grows dark. The voice of a young woman begins to play. She speaks with rhythm and confidence, each word hitting its mark. Occasionally she is briefly drowned out by applause. She goes on for about a minute, whipping the audience into a frenzy with talk of … Missy Elliott?
"If you ask me why representation is important," she says.
"I will tell you that on the days I don't feel pretty
I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me
pop that pop that, jiggle that fat
don't stop, get it 'til your clothes get wet.
I will tell you that right now there are a million
black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them."
It's slam poetry by a girl named Ashlee Haze — great slam poetry at that. But this isn't a Missy Elliott show. This is a Blood Orange show. Haze's poem is one of the first things you hear on the artist's latest album, Freetown Sound, and he decided to begin his Tuesday night show in Washington the same way. Why? Because why not. All night, Dev Hynes, the man behind the persona of Blood Orange, bucked the tradition of a standard concert, instead giving the crowd a beautiful mish-mash of art. There were several types of dancing, there were visuals, there was poetry and of course, there was music. And it was all good. Hynes put on a show in the most traditional sense of the phrase.
Launching straight from the poetry intro into "Augustine," one of Freetown's biggest hits, Blood Orange never looked back. The strong drum beats were almost constant, the dancing (at which Hynes is especially good) was free-flowing and the energy was high. The lights and visuals, too, were so strong that what was happening on stage seemed more like an art exhibit than a music gig. When, after three or four songs, Hynes spoke to the crowd for the first time by simply asking "How are you guys doing?" in his elusive British accent, it was almost jarring. I mean, when you've been gawking at the Mona Lisa for ten minutes you don't exactly expect her to climb out of the frame and hit you with a casual greeting.
As the concert progressed and the songs started to run into each other, beats staying strong and the dancing never ending, it was hard not to fall into some kind of trance. You're listening to the music, nodding your head to the beat and just blankly staring at this spectacle before you, completely locked in. It's a rare experience at a show, where distractions are usually abound. But somehow Hynes made it happen.
At one point he slowed the tempo with a stripped-down version of "E.V.P." He sat at a piano and his backing band cleared out. As he began to sing, a single female dancer emerged. The stage's background screen turned a cream color and we watched as her silhouette fluttered about on stage. If Blood Orange put us all in a trance this was its deepest point. When it ended there was a second of silence as the crowd made its way back to the surface of reality and then showered the two performers with applause. It was the type of unique, wonderful moment you hope to find in live music.
And it's amazing that Hynes could bring Freetown Sound to life in a live show considering how distinct of an album it is. Every song has something unique about. "Hadron Collider" has a Nelly Furtado feature. "E.V.P." combines some cello with an '80s sax and synth beat. And on the fantastic "Love Ya" we hear a sample of the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates musing on the dangerous importance of every detail in a young black man's life. "How was I gonna wear my pants?" he asks. "What shoes was I gonna wear?"
The whole album is like this. On Freetown Sound, Hynes creates something that is at once wonderfully eclectic but refreshingly intimate. This is an amazing feat. To replicate that same exact feeling in a live show, well, that might be even more impressive.