Release Date: Aug 24, 2018
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
With his fourth album as Blood Orange, pop polymath Dev Hynes cherry picks jazz piano, unstructured guitar and A-class collaborators to create an introspective masterwork about the desire to be loved Opening to the ambient sounds of New York traffic, ‘Negro Swan’ is another fantastic chapter in the career of music polymath Dev Hynes. In the two years since ‘Freetown Sound’, his last album as Blood Orange, the Ilford-born songwriter / producer / director / player of multiple instruments has travelled the world, hopping from - as he put it in a recent interview - "hotel room or Airbnb", trying to get studio time with whatever equipment he has. The results of those sessions sees ‘Negro Swan’ become Dev's most autobiographical work to date, telling stories of life, lost, love, anxiety, and - in the case of opening song "Orlando" - getting jumped in school.
The fourth Blood Orange album begins with a temperate rolling groove suited perfectly for Dev Hynes' gentle falsetto. Just as the song starts to resemble something akin to Stevie Wonder's "Power Flower" as an imagined Smokey Robinson collaboration, its refrain of "First kiss was the floor," delivered with deceptively wistful style, tugs the attentive listener into Hynes' marginalized and antagonized existence as a black male with characteristics perceived as non-masculine. A more severe attack is referenced later in "Dagenham Dream." The song's gauzy and isolated qualities are disrupted with sounds of passing sirens as Hynes recalls being hospitalized, concealing himself in response, and achieving blissful escape on his skateboard.
By now, we're familiar with Blood Orange 's signature sound: glorious '80s pop melodies that avoid ever sounding dated or like a tribute to the era, luscious harmonies, and deceptively joyous instrumentation. Dev's previous albums have been wildly atmospheric, and while Negro Swan is still dreamy, it feels like floating on grey clouds, not fluffy white ones. Negro Swan details, in Dev's words, "an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color." In many ways, it's the dark side of his last record, 2016's Freetown Sound.
With his 2016 album Freetown Sound, pop auteur Dev Hynes joined an ever-growing list of black millennial creators—among them Issa Rae, Jordan Peele, Kendrick Lamar, and Janelle Monáe—who are challenging cultural assumptions about blackness and shaping the zeitgeist in the process. And with cultural prominence comes an inevitable burden, as these and other artists' works exist in—and are shaped to varying degrees by—a context of political backlash and violence against black people. Negro Swan, Hynes's fourth album as Blood Orange, speaks even more eloquently than its predecessor to both the richness and precariousness of black experience, and especially queer black experience, in the 21st century.
The Lowdown: On his spectacular fourth album as Blood Orange, Dev Hynes realizes a grand vision. Negro Swan is narrated by Janet Mock, the writer, activist, and filmmaker who recently made history as the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of television through her work on FX's Pose. Just as Pose shows how the struggles of queer and trans people of color who built the ballroom culture of 1980s New York still resonate today, Negro Swan carries forward that battle of finding a family and forging a place for yourself in a world where you're told you don't belong.
Of the many projects Dev Hynes has been involved with during his career, Blood Orange is arguably his most personal and challenging. With each release, his themes have put greater emphasis on the struggles facing marginalized communities. 2016's politically minded Freetown Sound examined themes of prejudice and racial injustice while offering a broad view of black culture.
Ascribing authorship and meaning are music critics' bread and butter, so it's a bit of a stick in the eye when artists go out of their way to avoid both. Case in point: Blood Orange, aka Dev Hynes. The line on Hynes' beautiful, beguiling new album, Negro Swan, is that it explores depression and anxiety through a queer/person-of-colour lens. But Hynes says that's just what it means to him. When he handed the tracks off — everyone from Porches' Aaron Maine to Puff Daddy contributes — he let his collaborators take the reins, in terms ….
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.
What exactly is wrong with Devonté Hynes? On paper, he appears to have all the makings of a pop genius. He is a musical chameleon, comfortable working with pop stars, rock bands, and modern classical composers. His music successfully tackles profound topics, from mental health to racial inequality. And his music videos are artful and visually stunning.
Over the course of his career, from the dance-punk blitzkrieg of Test Icicles to Lightspeed Champion’s emo catharsis, through the sultry, smooth R&B of Blood Orange’s first moves to now, Dev Hynes has been on a path of reduction and refinement. Now seemingly a fully paid-up member of the ‘less is more’ school of sound, ‘Negro Swan’ arrives with an overarching ambience of unsettled nocturnal wanderings through New York streets; Dev’s vocals are far-away and thin, while found sounds of distant traffic and lone jazz players pepper the record. Guests pop up throughout his journey: Tei Shi and Puff Daddy add dreamy falsettos and grounding musings on love respectively to ‘Hope’, while The Internet’s Steve Lacy is credited on ‘Out Of Your League’ - likely responsible for the crunchy snare beats that poke pleasingly out of the general haze.
Devonté Hynes is a musical polymath. Emerging in the 00's as part of the noise pop group Test Icicles, after their collapse he skewed into his Lightspeed Champion alias. After two delicate albums he re-emerged as Blood Orange. Along the way he has worked with Solange, Sky Ferreira, FKA twigs and Kylie Minogue.