Devonté Hynes’ ‘Negro Swan’ has circled down from above to cover us in wings of sound. And not a moment too soon. The celebrated British-born artist’s fourth studio album as Blood Orange unpacks as a somber storyline, but doesn’t dwell beyond the light’s reach. ‘Negro Swan’ feels like a liquid, anxiety-flecked, genre-degusting exploration of life as the other. Haters will say it’s… unfinished. It’s actually virtuosically accomplished, I'll have you know. Here are five feelings that try to pinpoint these first few spins.
Stan Twitter likes to describe a fave pop star’s latest release as having cleared up skin and watered crops. Listening to ‘Negro Swan’ isn’t that, it’s richer. It makes you feel luxuriant in your blackness and/or your queerness. I suddenly feel abundant, florid and soothed.
These lyrics, dripped throughout, are like tiny splashes of lotion for the soul:
“Your skin’s a flag that shines for us all. The brown that shines and lights your darkest thoughts.” (Saint)
“N***a I’m feeling myself.”(Jewelry)
“Everybody goes through it, you’re gonna be alright. Just hold on to your mighty way of being.” (Runnin’)
And finally, in short: “I’m pretty as f**k.” (Smoke)
The album’s interludes, spoken by Janet Mock, offer liner notes of depth and experience. These are the thoughts and assertions that have brought Mock to international prominence as a writer, producer and director. It’s like a sudden stage light beam on anyone who identifies as LGBTQIA+ and beyond. When on ‘Dagenham Dream’, Ms Mock said:
“I think that through my life I've always been hyperconscious and aware of not going into spaces and seeking too much attention because part of survival is being able to just fit in. To be seen as normal and to “belong”. But I think that so often in society in order to belong, it means that we have to shrink parts of ourselves”, I felt that.
But life doesn’t have to stay that way forever. “You don’t have to shrink yourself, you don’t have to pretend or to perform”, she divulges on ‘Family’. To make it our eternal resolution to “do too much” is something we should all strive for, especially in spaces where we have not been wanted historically - if it's safe to do so.
On the opening track ‘Orlando’, Hynes describes his first kiss being with the school floor he was sucker-punched down to. We fall along with him as he details experiences of childhood assault and current anguish. Mental health is the thread that runs through the album. Hynes told the New York Times (in a standout profile you should read) that he’s becoming “darker and sadder” with age. He felt like expressing “themes of isolation, loneliness and displacement” pertaining particularly to race. He strived to “get at the different weight of life for marginalized people, how it’s tackled and how you live with it.” The darkness is a constant siren call on ‘Negro Swan’ but it doesn’t quite completely drag you down to the ocean floor. That’s my personal experience, however.
The album’s structure is scattered and peripatetic, switching up without a moment’s notice. Melodic motifs and vignettes open up songs within songs and there’s a languorous warmth to the body of work as a whole, a melting state, fuzzy in-and-out-of-consciousness. It’s precisely that demo, bedroom-production type of style that has made Dev Hynes your favourite artist’s favourite artist. This lack of clear-cut architecture might turn some listeners off from the project as a whole, but I particularly enjoy splashing about in its murky waters. Especially through ‘Minetta Creek’, a song our queen Solange championed for to stay on the album.
There’s a track that’s literally titled ‘Hope’. It has the legendary Diddy and the excellent Tei Shi on it. Diddy shares vulnerable musings on hoping to one day get over his fears and to be able to truly receive love. You should listen to it right now. I’ll wait. Hope and that prorsum kind of mentality (the Latin creed for ‘forward’), push you through all of the angst and the hurt. The 49-minute album ends with a waft of ‘Smoke’. All is not well, but we’ll be alright. “The sun comes in, my heart fulfils within.” As a musician, Dev Hynes perches on great heights. And over a sea of pain, 'Negro Swan' flies ahead.