Look back on the year to date, and you’ll see star after star trying to capitalize on the increasingly blurred lines between art and artist. Instead of disregarding questions about authenticity and authorial intent — qualities once used as cudgels against the genre by those who’d dismiss it as shallow and wasteful — pop has embraced them, and the drive to treat its artists with respect has led listeners into traps that have existed for decades. It’s why Beyoncé’s Lemonade is immediately accepted as the real and unrelenting chronicle of a marriage lost and found, rather than a savvy piece of creative nonfiction; it’s why Rihanna’s ANTI is praised for sounding "like the album Rihanna wanted to make," an assertion that’s impossible to prove unless you’re asking Rihanna herself.
The most popular musicians in the world are playing their public lives off the credulousness of the listening public to reach new heights of relevancy. Natasha Khan and Devonté Hynes don’t have that kind of star power, but their new albums — as Bat for Lashes and Blood Orange, respectively — are proof you can tell an effective story about yourself without the strength of personality reserved for pop’s upper echelon. They win your emotional investment by getting creative instead of relying on brute force.
Khan’s always had a deft hand with characters, and her discography is littered with memorable single-name figures. She invented a reckless blonde alter-ego named Pearl on 2009’s breakthrough Two Suns and sang about Daniel, a loverboy out of The Karate Kid with "a flame in [his] heart." When she returned three years later with the gripping The Haunted Man, she did so with Laura, a high-heeled, heart-stomping supernova. She’s a storyteller with a bibliography full of star-crossed lovers, mystical events, and imagery plucked out of a fairytale.
Natasha Khan's most ambitious narrative to date
The Bride is her most ambitious narrative to date, an honest-to-god concept album with a single thread and a formal structure. (It’s an album that comes with a prologue, an epilogue, and multiple dream sequences.) Khan’s early performances of the album have functioned more like theater than traditional concerts — she asks attendees to show up in formalwear and prances down a makeshift aisle in red and black bridal gear — and she’s serious enough about the story to turn it into a screenplay and corresponding feature film. (The album has roots in a short film Khan made last year called I Do, and the first chapter of an associated novella was included in the press materials.) The plot is just as important as the music, and they work in concert.
This means The Bride lacks both the ostentatiousness of Two Suns and the stark majesty of The Haunted Man: it’s a bleak, bloody road trip record. When the Bride’s fiancé dies in a fiery crash on the way to her dream wedding, she sets out on her honeymoon alone and emerges with a newfound sort of self-respect. Khan leaves behind the crystalline art-pop that was once her specialty, tapping instead into dour British folk and eerie Western soundtracks. The Bride’s journey is long, lonely, and haunted; sparkling melody is in short supply. (Opener "I Do" is the table-setting exception.) She dials back her thunderclap of a voice, saving its full power for the climactic anguish of "In God’s House." And she channels her interest in mysticism into specific, narrative-appropriate zones: apparitions, premonitions, witchy poetry right out of Macbeth. It’s all reasonable save mid-album intermission "Widow’s Peak," a spooky bit of spoken word that’s just a few inches away from bubble, bubble, toil and trouble-style cackling.
Khan’s devotion to The Bride’s story comes with a sacrifice in musical potency. It’s not an album that rewards listening à la carte: if you’re not sitting down and digesting it in full, you’re losing part of it. It lacks the immediacy of "Daniel," the fiery passion of "Oh Yeah," and the celestial bliss of "Marilyn." But it’s refreshing to hear an artist exercise independence and self-care through fiction, if only because it means listeners don’t have to participate in a referendum on Khan’s authenticity. It’s a story, no more and no less.
Khan wrote a novella and turned it into The Bride; Dev Hynes made a scrapbook and sculpted it into Freetown Sound, his third LP as Blood Orange. Where The Bride uses fiction to trace a difficult road to self-respect, Freetown Sound is interested in the real, contemporary problems — racism, homophobia and transphobia, alienation — that keep people from loving themselves. The former is built around a steely narrative core; the latter is diffuse, a cloud of melodies, lyrics, samples, and field recordings that swirl around and loop back on themselves. It’s messy and disorienting by design. "I love the feel of Paul’s Boutique," said Hynes in a recent interview with Pitchfork. "I’ve listened to that album my whole life, but I couldn’t tell you how many tracks are on it or what the names of the tracks are. I just love the idea that you turn it on at any point and you’re in that world, and you can just keep going. You can enter. You can leave."
Hynes represents an increasingly visible kind of contemporary fluidity. He and his work occupy a liminal space between genres and genders. He’s made snotty punk as part of Test Icicles and affable country-rock as Lightspeed Champion; he’s written and produced some of this decade’s best left-of-center pop singles alongside artists like Solange, Sky Ferreira, and Carly Rae Jepsen. (Jepsen pops up on Freetown Sound’s "Better Than Me," duetting with Hynes and adopting a half-accent I’m still trying to figure out.) He can flip between a low, seductive purr and a fluttering falsetto at a moment’s notice.
Most importantly, he understands his strengths and weaknesses. He doesn’t have the performer’s charisma to carry an album as ambitious as Freetown Sound on his own, so he leans on collaborators, community, and culture. Guests like Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez, Debbie Harry, and Nelly Furtado take on some of the vocal heavy lifting; samples of prominent queer and black activists and writers like Marlon Gibbs and Ta-Nehisi Coates fill the gaps between misty choruses; found sounds from Hynes’ beloved New York and Paris Is Burning’s ball queens flesh out the album’s world.
The strength Hynes draws from those friends and idols is what allows him to survive in a world that’s constantly threatening to devalue his personhood or treat him with outright hostility. He spends a good chunk of Freetown Sound rendering the kind of draining, complicated situations privileged people never have to consider. A white girl in a "thug life" T-shirt throws him into a tailspin on "Chance," and you can hear him sighing as he’s walking down the street: "All I ever wanted was a chance for myself." On "But You," he’s performing mental calculus while sharing an empty street with a woman walking alone, reckoning with the fact that the color of his skin could be enough to make strangers feel unsafe. The recurring motif of "With Him" honors and mourns people in his life who succumbed to the pressure of existence.
Where are you supposed to find salvation? For the poet Ashlee Haze — she’s sampled on opener "By Ourselves" — it’s in the body and music of Missy Elliott: "If you ask me why representation is important / I will tell you that on the days I don’t feel pretty / I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me," declares Haze. "I will tell you that right now there are a million / black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them." Other people find it on the dancefloor, shedding their fears to a disco beat; others still look to the friends and family that love them. When he reaches the chorus of "But You," Hynes leaves behind the verses’ anxiety and frustration to embrace a kind of fundamental optimism. "You are special in your own way," he sings. It’s a beacon for listeners who are still searching for the kind of self-love Hynes has managed to embrace.
Khan and Hynes actively remove themselves from the spotlight
It wouldn’t have been hard for Khan and Hynes to create versions of The Bride and Freetown Sound more directly connected to their lives and experiences. Khan could’ve easily riffed on her own romantic history and her own disillusionment with fairytale romance; Hynes could’ve built much of the album around his personal experience with police brutality, a 2014 assault at the hands of Lollapalooza security guards that left him performing in crutches and a knee brace. Instead, they chose to actively take themselves out of the ideas they wanted to express — Khan with a fictional surrogate, Hynes with a documentarian’s ear, surrounding himself with other voices from the past and present to send a message that extends beyond one person.
Come to think of it, their platinum-selling counterparts aren’t much different. Lemonade isn’t just an invitation to play "true or false" with its lyrical content and Beyoncé’s once-impregnable marriage — it’s a celebration and close examination of black womanhood and the patterns of oppression that let philanderous men off the hook. ANTI isn’t a referendum on Rihanna’s first decade of work; it’s just a damn good record. The only difference is audience expectation. True stardom can be a gift and a curse, especially for women, who are often treated like public figures first and artists second. The musical accomplishments can end up overshadowed by even the slightest hint of biographical detail. Though each have fervent fanbases in their own right, Khan and Hynes have more freedom of narrative — the creative is just as important as the personal.