While it conjures up feelings of deep-seated sorrow and Sisyphean hopelessness, Dev Hynes’s new 11-minute masterpiece “Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?” is less a protest song, à la Prince, than a self-vivisection. He's deconstructing himself, figuring out who he is in the wake of the Charleston shooting. The way it deals with tragedy and pain is achingly of-the-moment, yet that pain feels, sadly, timeless. Released under Hynes's Blood Orange moniker, the song is a pensive meditation on his feelings during this time of sustained anxiety. He eschews anger, a staple of the protest song, and instead sounds exhausted at having to explain this "depression" again. The vocals echo with the fleeting quality of a dream:
Let me break this down for you and tell you how we feel again,
Your fear is all you hold on to, so when you see me it's not fair
I have nothing left to give when you don't notice what is wrong,
Charleston left me broken down, but it's just another day to you
Toronto-based artist Talwst provides a spoken-word interlude, telling Hynes, “I understand what you’re going through being surrounded by friends of privilege who don’t get it.”
"Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?," streaming on SoundCloud, is accompanied by a Robert Mapplethorpe picture. The song, Hynes says, is not from his upcoming album — “Just some things on my mind.” It's a gorgeous, deeply personal musical journey toward a self-realization — lyrical and lacerating, exact and exacting, sad but not sorry. It's a sort of triptych, telling one thematically unified story while evolving in three distinct phases (each of which receives separate credits on his SoundCloud). He uses the song to reflect on his heritage, his name (or Irish lineage, meaning, literally, “servant”), and the current racial fears afflicting America. Even the title comments on the willful ignorance of the privileged — it's not "Can You See?" It's "Do You See?" In the final section, a group of female vocal harmonies eddy around in the background, quiet enough that you really have to try to hear them: "So how can I become anyone? You wouldn't listen if I told you."
Hynes hasn't hidden his feelings regarding recent events. He posted the following on Facebook:
America is in the middle of an act of terrorism right now, and black people are being attacked and killed every day. Every day I wake up and it becomes harder for me to interact with my friends and the world around me. I am scared, scared for myself, for my family, for my brothers & for my sisters... It is an incredible sadness & heaviness. Being told that we do not matter on and on and on day to day to day. America likes to act like a super human yet continues to blame human error for these horrific acts. I don't know what to do anymore.
The 29-year-old Briton is one of the most exciting young artists currently making music. His impressively eclectic body of work as a songwriter and producer includes perhaps the best pop song of the decade thus far (Sky Ferreira's "Everything's Embarrassing"), but he's been gradually infusing more serious and increasingly severe emotion into his personal work. His debut solo album, Coastal Grooves, was a fun but chill bit of shiny post-disco pop, while his densely layered Cupid Deluxe in 2013 mingled scar-bearing soul and jazz with '80s-inspired synth pop, a sort of Miles-by-way-of-Madonna with deep hues of Prince. "Do You See My Skin?," however, demonstrates a startling change in tone, anchored with a solemnity that goes beyond Hynes's usual themes of simple heartbreak. It's the first great piece of art to respond to the Charleston shootings.