Whereas 2016’s Freetown Sound was a record that dove into themes of sex, race, and politics, Negro Swan, the latest release from Dev Hynes’ solo project Blood Orange, tries for an intimate experience about mental health within marginalized communities. Swan is the most vulnerable album in the entire Blood Orange catalog, even more so than the one that came before it. The result is an absolutely stunning venture into the nuances of anxiety, depression, and loneliness within Black/LGBT communities and how to navigate around those emotions in our 2018 world. Negro Swan feels like a companion piece to Freetown Sound — in a way that it is entirely possible to play both back to back.
Sonically, Negro Swan feels more low-key and unassuming than its predecessor. Freetown Sound and 2013’s Cupid Deluxe were more groove-oriented, with a heavy emphasis on alt-pop and R&B with some influences of rock. This album is a diversion away from the poppier sound of his earlier work under the Blood Orange moniker to one more grounded in down tempo indie-rock, funk, progressive R&B, hip-hop, and jazz. Over the course of the Negro Swan, Hynes’ voice is in the background almost like a voice deep in your subconscious, musing and lamenting over his thoughts and feelings. His ethereal and sometimes breathy vocal delivery is buttery smooth across the album’s more jazz-oriented instrumentals. The instrumentation is often very minimal, but it never ends up feeling tired or melodramatic. The beats are lush and are just teeming with a sense of minimalist beauty.
This minimalist approach compliments this album ten-fold. Along with this, Hynes has a beautiful way of capturing the common feeling of isolation and the need to fit in. As he sings on “Charcoal Baby”, “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/ No one wants to be the negro swan..” In many ways, Negro Swan draws similarities to other albums like Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy, Solange’s A Seat At The Table, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and Saba’s CARE FOR ME — as mental health and self-preservation play an integral role within the narrative woven between the music.
The narrative theme of the album is driven forward by spoken passages by Janet Mock, a trans activist, author, and television personality. All throughout Negro Swan, Mock delivers some truly thought-provoking statements on topics such as family, keeping up appearances, and the misconception that minorities feel the need to “do too much” in spaces that they were previously unwelcome in.
While Negro Swan might be dealing in a grim subject matter, the theme of hope is pervasive within the album’s core. As Hynes himself said when he spoke to Pitchfork:
“The underlying thread through each piece on the album is the idea of HOPE, and the lights we can try to turn on within ourselves with a hopefully positive outcome of helping others out of their darkness.”
This idea of hope is expressed on tracks like “Hope”, “Saint”, and “Nappy Wonder”, — where the latter track deals with a sense of nostalgia to a time when life wasn’t as taxing or daunting. The lead singles for Negro Swan, “Charcoal Baby” and “Jewelry”, are some of the best tracks in Hynes’ entire career and deal in the topic of hope. “Jewelry” is an off-kilter hip-hop track where Hynes raps while using the analogy of one’s hopes and dreams being like a home that is being destroyed. The former track is all about depression and how everyone needs to find out what role they play and more importantly, where they belong within a particular space. Hynes makes the point that no one should be left out feeling aimless or in this case, a “negro swan”.
While Negro Swan houses some of Hynes’ best work, the lone song within the album that doesn’t quite stick the landing is “Chewing Gum” featuring A$AP Rocky and Project Pat. Although the track is not wholly unlistenable, as it does fit within the album’s theme, — Rocky’s verse is just a touch awkward and feels out-of-place as he talks about how he is “selfish with that p*ssy like it’s his.” It’s not a deal breaker, but Rocky does manage to be the weakest aspect of the album. However, the other features on Negro Swan are nothing short of incredible, especially with Tei Shi and Puff Daddy on”Hope”.
Negro Swan is one of the most important albums this decade, without a doubt. Dev Hynes managed to create an album that is not only a statement on mental health but one that was able to shed light on the mental complexities within those communities that many people drastically underestimate. Nearly every track is masterfully done and yet still, despite the high bar that Freetown Sound set, Negro Swan, manages to surpass it. It’s simply an incredible body of work and one that feels like an instant classic.