There was a time when a mixtape was clearly defined in opposition to an actual album. It was a free, low-key, interstitial release that enabled the artist in question – usually from the fields of hip-hop and R&B – to work without worrying unduly about the troublesome business of sample clearance. But that definition went out of the window some time ago. These days, entire careers, including that of Chance the Rapper, are founded on releasing only mixtapes. Drake’s mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, meanwhile, seemed indistinguishable from the rest of his oeuvre: like his official album releases, it contained 23,476 tracks, had a running time of five days, spawned hit singles, was sold rather than given away as a download and was released on both CD and vinyl.
“Mixtape” now seems to mean whatever an artist wants it to mean, which brings us to Dev Hynes, AKA Blood Orange, and Angel’s Pulse. The accompanying bumf posits the release as an addendum to 2018’s Negro Swan – a scrapbook of ideas recorded after the release of an album that sounded not unlike a scrapbook of ideas in the first place. Negro Swan’s skittish assemblage of lightly sketched concepts, bursts of found sound and abstract ambience wobbled unsteadily along the line that separates an admirably unquiet brand of artistry from an off-putting lack of focus.
Indeed, the main difference between the two releases seems to involve a certain scaling-down of the special guests’ star power – out goes Puff Daddy and A$AP Rocky, in come the more left-field figures of Venezuelan sound-designer and sometime Björk collaborator Arca and funk songwriter Toro Y Moi – and a lack of the kind of explicitly socio-political purpose with which Hynes freighted Negro Swan, which explored “the corners of black existence and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of colour”: there’s a 90-second sliver of a gospel-ish soul track concerning the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by white supremacists, but certainly nothing here like Negro Swan’s spoken-word commentaries by Janet Mock, the trans activist and writer/producer/director of TV series Pose.
Instead, Angel’s Pulse demonstrates the most appealing aspect of Hynes’ apparent restlessness: a broad gush of musical ideas and influences. In its opening two minutes, it dramatically switches styles from old-fashioned C86 indie to something not unlike Drake’s Auto-Tuned R&B, albeit drained of the bullish machismo that underpins Aubrey Graham’s poor-me solipsism. Elsewhere, there’s hypnagogic pop decorated with improvised sax; gloopy chopped-and-screwed hip-hop; heaving guitars in the vein of My Bloody Valentine; a track featuring mask-sporting rapper-cum-social media sensation BennY RevivaL that sounds as if it was taped off an untuned radio. Hynes’ voice remains as divisive as ever – it can sound affectingly fragile or just reedy and paper-thin – but there are a lot of neat touches that tell you about his subtle skills as a producer, from the accents of electric sitar on I Wanna C U, to the dancehall samples and sirens that cut through the otherwise laid-back Happiness. There are enough strong pop melodies to make you wonder aloud at why Hynes’ parallel career as a producer/writer-for-hire has thus far played out in pop’s margins – co-authoring the occasional track for Kylie Minogue, FKA twigs and Mac Miller – rather than centre stage.
Perhaps he prefers it that way: pop songwriting is a notoriously constrained and rigorous business, and as Angel’s Pulse proves, self-discipline isn’t really Hynes’ thing. For all the highlights listed above, there are moments where it feels woolly and rambling – some going given that it lasts half an hour and only one track runs past the four-minute mark. To get to the good stuff takes a degree of patience and involves a route that passes through a fair amount of noodly self-indulgence: the sketchy, demo-like Baby Florence; the formless Take It Back. They sound like experiments, and experiments that aren’t interesting enough to warrant public exposure.
To which the obvious retort is that Angel’s Pulse is a mixtape: perhaps you should expect it to contain the kind of material that in a different age would have ended up on B-sides or padding out CD2 of a two CD-single set: stuff for diehard fans to pick through in search of under-the-radar gems. But you could level the same criticisms at Negro Swan or indeed its predecessor, 2016’s Freetown Sound: both meticulously crafted albums where the great nevertheless rubbed up against the half-formed. This is clearly how Hynes works and what he wants to do: take it or leave it. There’s something to be said for such auteur bullishness in a world of eager-to-please, but the results are a little frustrating: the stuff of which cult figures are made, and the skip button was designed for.
This week Alexis listened to
Working Men’s Club: Teeth
The Hebden Bridge trio’s debut single Bad Blood appears to have been no fluke: the forthcoming Teeth is darkly menacing disco, with bracing guitar squall on top.