When Blood Orange aka Dev Hynes performed a solo version of "Time Will Tell" on Kimmel Tuesday night, it was a pitch-perfect recreation of the video—interpretive dance moves and an all-white ensemble, a sort of inverse of the intimate choreography Janet Jackson threw down in the video for "Pleasure Principle," complete with folding chair.
Janet, of course, is a major touchstone for Blood Orange's work—he is deeply influenced by her producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, down to the outfits—and it's pretty awesome (and brave) that he took such a pared down approach to his performance (even miming his piano part—"hand syncing"?). At a certain point, after he leaps over the folding chair, he even strikes a pose very similar to Janet's, an obvious homage to a LIFE QUEEN, bless. But at the same time, did it work?
On one hand, transforming a tiny stage on national television (with that goddamn AT&T logo on the wall) into what is essentially a basement-show performance is punk and subversive, particularly in a setting in which most musicians scale up, rappers adding live drummers and bands ramping up their staffs with extra keyboardists and, like, theremin players. Hynes' awkward dancing was endearing and strange, particularly in his homemade "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt and rolled-up sweatpants. His performance was about invoking our empathy through gawkiness, particularly through a song about gentleness and generosity to one's self. "Even if it's all you know, just keep your heart in," he sings. "Any way to keep it up, just never let yourself down. Even if it's something that you've had your eye on. It is what it is."
Even punker was the fact that he performed the same song twice, first with a live band that included his girlfriend, singer Samantha Urbani, on breathy high range, and a coterie of dancers that approached his pop star aspirations but still kept the performance-art quality alive.
And on the other hand, the former dance teacher in me wants to straighten up some of his moves, even when I know they're purposefully off, and the current music critic in me wishes he would sing more forcefully, because his shoegazing vocals tend to get lost inside his own breath in this situation. That's the point, I know, but Dev Hynes is such an excellent songwriter that it would be a shame for the Kimmel-viewing masses to dismiss him as a musician on technicalities, because he deserves a wider audience and a louder voice.
Then again, maybe this was the point and he was just like fuckit. Romanticizing late-'80s East Village art shit can do that to you. Regardless, respect to the clarity of vision, and for repping Janet Jackson.