Blood Orange Negro Swan

[Domino; 2018]

Styles: balmy R&B, new york city, the 2000s
Others: Prince

Ever since abandoning the tranquil, indie pop tendencies of Coastal Grooves and Cupid Deluxe, Devonte Hynes has become unafraid of taking risks. The nocturnal expanses of Freetown Sound were (and still are) a full-bodied testament to that fact. While Blood Orange may have originated within the confines of bedroom music, the calling of shared histories and experiences, drawing from Hynes’s diasporic beginnings, have come into focus.

Negro Swan is Hynes’s most ambitious undertaking to date. While the blinds are still partially drawn and things feel characteristically brooding, a typical Blood Orange track is no longer sullied by insular drum machine patterns and oceanic reverb: voices are fully present, percussion sits resolutely front-and-center in the mix, and every bass line maintains a warm embrace. The album battles the myriad complexities of black depression, queer existence, and finding safety in a world that was never tailored for you.

You can touch blackness as the Negro Swan. The tactile manifestations of a marginalized person’s life — hair, skin, clothes — become the canvas of Blood Orange’s choosing; “Your skin’s a flag that shines for us all” the emphatic battle cry of a life’s radiance undermined. Tactility is of paramount importance. A crisper take on production results in songs feeling physically closer than they ever have; although a wealth of rewarding grooves exist, it’s the stark, minimal tracks that showcase a side we haven’t experienced before.

There’s close attention to each potent hook, and it shows. “First kiss was the floor” is undergirded by a sway so infectious that it’s easy to overlook the refrain’s devastating personal truth. “Charcoal Baby” features one of the album’s most killer choruses and prominent guitar riffs while posing toward brown/black skin, very tongue-in-cheek, “Can you break sometimes?” (The answer is no.) When somber, “Take Your Time” is a comforting reprieve, where vocals reach for new heights in delirious glory. Singing has never been Blood Orange’s forte, but there is something to be said of its nakedness, especially when pushed to the very brink of each last breath.

Hynes avoids lingering in the spotlight for too long. The album is atypically feature-heavy, but the results are a mixed bag. Diddy’s brief and vulnerable appearance brings plenty of personality to “Hope.” As usual, Georgia Anne Muldrow is in godly form on the Pharcyde love-letter “Runnin’.” But A$AP Rocky delivers an instantly forgettable verse on “Chewing Gum” about his ex, toothpaste, and riding on the dick “with no license and shit.” At best, it’s just about listenable; at worst, it’s puzzling and thoroughly awkward.

There’s no denying that Blood Orange has become, aesthetically, a slicker and smarter project in taking this resolute turn toward regal, monochromatic pop and soul. That being said, Rocky’s feature is just one of the many instances where this newfound approach reveals itself as a cloud of disparate ideas that ultimately dampen the impact of any overarching statement. Most of this issue stems from a tendency to recklessly introduce and eliminate potentially powerful ideas. The gospel-inflected vocalizations of “Holy Will” were a welcome move, sharply contrasted against more rhythmic backbones elsewhere — after all, Hynes is capable of creating juxtaposition. Unfortunately, backloading drums and more syrup synths toward the end of the song provides only a fleeting glimmer of variation that deserved development. “Jewelry” blossoms into an understated electro-soul bop, only for a confused blend of detuned guitars, vocal inflections, and ad-libs to steal the show.

Janet Mock’s narration plays an integral role, as it bridges various musical passages together. But most of the time, it feels conceptually disjointed. That’s not to say that Mock’s insight isn’t valuable, but its collaborative role with the music is largely surface-level, featuring arbitrary trade-offs between her and Hynes. The obsession over performativity and the need to limit self-expression in certain spaces seems to suggest that the subject matter at hand — Negro Swan — represents some kind of unshackled representation of the artist’s voice. If this really is the case, it’s disappointing to see Hynes fall prey to relatively safe resolutions when preoccupied with complex, intersectional ideas. The sheer amount of songs that dissolve into a pastiche of floating keyboards, atmospheric city sounds, and other jazzy detritus is exhausting, and truly accepting these features as representative of the album’s lofty thematic aspirations is not easy. New York City and the confines of bohemian intellectualism (“Got big books and I’m broke”) are motifs that fail to connect. Take the additional battery of tracks, including “Vulture Baby” and “Minetta Creek,” that are 100% vibes but not much else and it gets less appetizing to pick out meaningful assertions among the filler.

Identity and the burden of performance are grueling enough to articulate, let alone deconstruct for others. It is deeply, deeply layered. For those without brown or black skin, there’s no beginning or end to this discussion. Negro Swan is certainly an excellent primer, with enough defiance and unapologetic celebration to go around. In being both celebratory and broken, it embodies the disenfranchised human. Hynes takes ownership of that dissonance. Rather than a vague interest in creating bite-sized political fodder, the album is indeed invested in rejecting one-dimensional interpretations of being black and/or queer.

Confrontational moments, however, are scarce. It all sounds incredible, but there is a fundamental, unignorable disconnect between what wants (or needs) to be said and what is actually said. Situating oneself in New York City may be one of the easiest things to do while listening to Negro Swan, which is a fairly lukewarm prospect. Perhaps Negro Swan is merely a step along the way, as Blood Orange continues to contend with monolithic, difficult ideas, but for now, this patchwork of sweltering grooves, amicable conversations, and urban ambience remains limited in its vision.

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