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Blood Orange - Negro Swan Music Album Reviews

Dev Hynes’ fourth album as Blood Orange focuses on black depression, sketching his anxious alt-pop, progressive R&B, indie hip-hop, downtempo rock, and spacey chillwave into a minimalist emulsion.

In his captivating book Black Swan Lake: Life of a Wetland, Australian scholar Rod Giblett traces a cultural history of the slender, waterborne bird. Black swans have long been prized by indigenous communities for their exotic, improbable beauty. European colonizers, however, tended to malign the birds as evil, ugly, and unwelcome, simply due to their color. Delicate and fierce, fetishized and rebuked, black swans live at the intersections: they’re both/and, more than one given thing at any given time.

On his fourth studio album as Blood Orange, musical polymath Devonté Hynes explores the comforts and complications of living a life as both/and—of being treated, to borrow from Thelonious Monk, as an ugly beauty. Negro Swan captures the scattershot, jittery, anxious, blissed-out-depressive feeling of what it’s like to be a marginalized person at a toxic and retrograde moment in global culture and politics. “No one wants to be the Negro Swan,” he laments on “Charcoal Baby.” “No one wants to be the odd one out at times…/Can you break sometimes?” Hynes goes for the anachronistic “Negro” to suggest the history of racial abjection—just like the phrase “Charcoal Baby” evokes 19th-century blackface performers who used burnt cork, or charcoal, to darken their faces for white audiences. The album’s cover photo, shot by the designer-photographer Ana Kraš, drives home the ugly beauty idea: A black man perches on a car windowpane, rocking a white, studded do-rag, eyeshadow, and wings on his back.

Negro Swan’s world-weary opening track “Orlando” offers a 21st-century update on those tragic politics of deflation and depletion. Hynes’ production goes for pretty, sprightly textures: sampled street sounds, twinkling electric piano, chicken-cluck wah-wah guitar, and a mid-tempo funky shuffle beat. As if to alert us to sudden danger, a dancehall-style alarm goes off (alarms are a recurring motif on the album). Sounding like a quivering Curtis Mayfield, Hynes falsetto-croons the hook, “First kiss was the floor,” a blood-chilling reflection about being bullied/bashed as a child on a school bus.

Like most of the tracks on Negro Swan, “Orlando” isn’t content to be just one thing. As the hook arrives, the song abruptly morphs into a pensive guitar vamp, and we’re treated to an interlude with trans activist Janet Mock, riffing about the value of “doing too much” in a culture that doesn’t allow marginalized people to truly excel at much of anything. Mock shows up on five of Negro Swan’s 16 tracks: Fly-on-the-wall interludes constituted from bits of their recorded conversations, Mock’s spoken-word commentaries provide a voice-of-wisdom presence throughout. They also confirm the album’s central conceit: how people of color and queers manage trauma in a racist, heteronormative culture, even as we pursue alternative models of kinship that ensure our liberation.

Hynes has said that Negro Swan is about black depression as well as his own tumultuous childhood in England. Besides “Orlando,” glum, detuned “Dagenham Dream” also explores the ins and outs of his earliest memories (the title refers to a scrappy neighborhood in East London); and on foreboding "Nappy Wonder,” featuring cellist and singer Kelsey Lu, Hynes reminisces about former days in Barking (another East London town) over doodling piano, reversed guitar riffs, and drum and bass that irregularly drop in and out of the track. Fusing together alt-pop, progressive R&B, indie hip-hop, downtempo rock, and spacey chillwave into a minimalist emulsion, Negro Swan can be jumpy and hard to pin down. You get the sense that Hynes would have it no other way.

In fact, Hynes’ entire career (oscillating between bands, solo ventures, aliases, side projects, auteur experimentalism, work-for-hire pop, etc.) has been about multiplicity and blurring categorizations. His last release, 2016’s Freetown Sound, ventured far afield, musing on his immigrant parents’ lives and merging political activism with melancholia for late 1980s queer NYC life. Hynes has long made good as an in-demand alternative pop producer for starlets like Carly Rae Jepsen and Solange; and more recently, he’s had unexpected collaborations with A$AP Rocky, Girlpool, and Philip Glass. Negro Swan’s unpredictable guest list is a testament to Hynes’ curatorial savvy: The album features Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, Colombian-Canadian vocalist Tei Shi, NYC vocalist Ian Isiah, alt-soul singer Georgia Anne Muldrow, actress Amandla Stenberg, as well Kindness’ Adam Bainbridge, Diana Gordon, and others.

Though multi-instrumentalist producers are often lone-wolf figures, Hynes’ collaborative spirit confirms that he’s most interested in a communal “we” approach to making music. He also strives for a similar pluralism in his approach to gender. In the seven years since he first appeared under the Blood Orange alias, non-normative Hynes (who identifies as not gay, but not straight) pushes back against machismo and male power in an effort to diversify stylistic representations of black masculinity. In fact, he might be the key figure connecting the black polymath template (think of other Renaissance men like Smokey Robinson, Babyface, Pharrell Williams, Tyler, the Creator, etc.) to contemporary identity struggles around sexual fluidity and anti-racism. Negro Swan’s insistence on the politics of indeterminate identity especially resonates against the backdrop of a 2018 MAGA political climate in which collective anxieties—impacted by political and economic insecurity and public officials’ gaslighting tactics—have gone through the roof.

Despite its thematic focus on anxiety—or maybe because of it—Negro Swan is a drifty, loose, dissociated affair. Adrenaline-pounding dance beats like the ones found on Freetown Sound’s propulsive “Best to You” or “E.V.P.” don’t show up here. Instead, the album sounds more like a downcast mixtape constituted from helter-skelter sounds, sketched-out musical ideas, and conversation fragments. (Hynes has described his aesthetic as open tabs on a browser; that is certainly the case here). Ambient, blunted “Vulture Baby” taps into a vintage psychedelic soul sound; but at only one minute and 15 seconds, it’s here and gone. “Chewing Gum” centers on a languorous ’80s pop melody and a chugging hip-hop beat before turning the spotlight to A$AP Rocky and Memphis’ Project Pat rapping about pussy and dick. Negro Swan’s cauldron of abstract soundscapes, melancholic drift, and disjointed musical ideas will frustrate those looking for more structured pop, and it will enliven others who can respect the slapdash, bricolage aesthetic as a key element in Hynes’ creative master plan.

Hynes always racks up realness points for not being afraid to come off uncool. His skittish singing doesn’t have a lot of power, but its gawky delicateness feels modest and palpably intimate. Negro Swan leans on inspirational, self-help messages—standing in your truth, coming out of darkness into light—that could have come off as mawkish or gauche in lesser hands. “Holy Will,” one of the album’s left-curve highlights, happens to be a winning, deconstructed take on the Clark Sisters’ gospel “Center of Thy Will.” And album closer “Smoke” centers around a lyric—“The sun comes in/My heart fulfills within”—that makes Negro Swan a far less pessimistic affair than much of the bleak R&B that’s ruled the airwaves and streaming services for the last decade. For a project focused on fragility that asks the question, “Can you break sometimes?” the album closes on a blissful note that dreams of wholeness.

Slippery and cryptic, Negro Swan blurs boundaries between the finished and the unfinished; between focused deliberation and thrown-together spontaneity; between fly-on-the-wall conversations and self-contained songs; between indie experimentalism and overground pop; between insider and outsider, black and white, straight and gay, trans and cis; between taxing depletion and invigorating replenishment. Dev Hynes remains an unfettered black man making whatever the fuck music comes into his head. Given that his artistic ideas affirm the power of community, kinship, and therapeutic healing in the midst of grim, dark times, his adventures in musical freedom remain a sublime political act.

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