Music Reviews
Negro Swan

Blood Orange Negro Swan

(Domino) Rating - 8/10

There’s an interesting documentary to be made on the oft-forgotten period in the mid-00s where, post-Libertines implosion, a certain subsection of the British music industry seemingly went crazy. Floppy hair and day-glo accessories were in, and a new wave of artists seemed intent on smashing together incongruous genres with a devil-may-care attitude. For a while, against the odds, it seemed like it was working. Klaxons won the Mercury Prize, the movement had its own era-defining TV show in Skins and people seemed to genuinely believe that “grindie” was a type of music (Hadouken!, you did not toil in vain).

Briefly, one of the leading lights of the scene were London-based trio, Test Icicles, who were fast-tracked to success after signing to Domino. They’re best remembered for Circle. Square. Triangle., a riotous collision of screamo and dance that can still evoke pangs of nostalgia amongst a proportion of Brits in their early 30s. Test Icicles barely made it to two years before disbanding and, like most of their contemporaries, that appeared to be it. Surely no-one could guess that one of their number, a certain Devonté Hynes, would go on to be one of the most distinctive and sought-after producers of his generation, working with Solange, Sky Ferreira and Carly Rae Jepsen, amongst others. With his Blood Orange moniker, he’s been putting out music for a decade, much of it deeply affecting work that touches on identity, sexuality and institutional racism. Put it this way: you don’t get this kind of thing from former members of Does It Offend You, Yeah?

If Hynes previous Blood Orange album, 2016’s excellent Freetown Sound, was about exploring your background and looking to the past to understand who you are, Negro Swan is about existing in the world today, and how to take up space in a society that others you. Its sixteen tracks are hymns of inclusion and defiance, but also of vulnerability. Hynes himself has called the album “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression,” and despite the strength of the cast of characters and the message of positivity, there’s a sense of discomfort and dread hiding in every corner of Negro Swan, as if acknowledging that full acceptance remains currently out of reach.

Throughout the last ten years, on both his own work and alongside others, Hynes’ production style has remained particularly distinctive. The most obvious touchpoint is the 1980s, with Hynes’s fondness for gated, cavernous drum sounds and thumbed, popping bass notes prevalent. That’s not to mention his use of synth pads, which have a carefully-managed aesthetic which conjures images of the early days of mainstream electro-pop. Yet whereas that era often paired the digital with imagined tales of the future and mannered, clipped vocals, Hynes always makes sure the human side comes through in the lyrics.

Negro Swan is a statement to be appreciated as a whole, which, when considered in tandem with Hynes’s apparent allergy to choruses, means tracks that jump out at you and stick in your head are something of a rarity. Rather, it’s an album of moments, such as the powerful harmonies on the line, “Spreading all my love for you,” on Saint or the repeated refrain of “The sun comes in / My heart fulfills within,” which closes the album, acting as a small beacon of hope. One of the most impressive aspects of Negro Swan is how Hynes manages to corral his range of guest stars into following the vision of the album. Tei Shi, Steve Lacy and even Diddy stick to the script and augment the tracks where they’re featured. The only exception to this is A$AP Rocky, who presumably neglected to read the script and lends a guest verse to Chewing Gum which sticks out like a sore thumb. Rocky’s woozy, codeine-laced style could work on the album, but it’s spoiled by his insistence in sticking to his USP, i.e. rapping about his attractiveness and sexual proficiency. There hasn’t yet been a Blood Orange song that needs lines like, “She the type of chick to get right on the dick / Ride on the dick with no license and shit.”

Elsewhere, Hynes makes use of powerful spoken-word interludes from transgender rights activist Janet Mock to further ingrain his message. Jewelry features an introduction about being present when uninvited, culminating with the words, “People try to put us down by saying, ‘She’s doing the most,' or ‘He’s way too much.’ But, like, why would we want to do the least?” On Runnin’, which reprises album opener Orlando, Mock recounts a pep talk she gave herself where she vowed, “To stop performing in ways people wanted me to, to actually show up for myself and to be myself.” It has a similar effect to the interjections on Freetown Sound (particularly Ashlee Haze’s slam poem For Colored Women, which forms the backbone of By Ourselves) and reinforces the concept of the album as both personal and political.

Taken in the wider context of Dev Hynes’s career as Blood Orange, Negro Swan is another sure-footed step forward. It’s rare that an artist can operate within the pop template, collaborate with household names and still produce work that can be considered as significantly culturally important, but that’s what Hynes manages. A voice for the under-heard and an education for everyone else, Negro Swan demands your attention, and is more than worthy of it.