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.
Like Freetown Sound, Negro Swan is unabashed in its embrace of a queer black aesthetic, right down to the album's use of a sample from a monologue by transgender activist Janet Mock. But where the former album mixed Hynes's soulful sound with cooler textures from British synth-pop and electronic music, the latter sticks squarely to R&B—albeit the gauzy, genre-fluid “alternative” R&B of artists like the Internet, whose guitarist and co-vocalist Steve Lacy appears on “Out of Your League,” and Solange, whose Hynes-produced 2012 EP True helped introduce Blood Orange to the mainstream.
Rather than stifling Hynes's eclecticism, this exploration of an identifiable musical lineage sharpens and enhances it. Lead single “Charcoal Baby” meshes together disparate strands of black music from the last 50 years: a melodic funk guitar line, layers of Prince-style synthesizers, a jazz sax solo, and snatches of baroque-soul flute. Other songs add ecstatic house beats (“Saint”), chopped-n'-screwed vocals (“Chewing Gum”), transcendent gospel harmonies (“Holy Will”), and Hendrixian guitars (“Nappy Wonder”) to the album's stylistic mix. By drawing these connecting lines through the diasporic black musical tradition, Hynes crucially taps into its unifying principle: the alchemic transfiguration of joy from pain, hope from apparent hopelessness.
Negro Swan is Blood Orange's most assured, accomplished, and significant album to date.
This is key, because for an album about “black depression,” as Hynes has described it, Negro Swan often sounds surprisingly uplifting. Opening track “Orlando,” an impressionistic narrative about a “confused and lonely” 16-year-old boy at a nightclub, floats in on a mellow, buoyant groove with Hynes singing in a Curtis Mayfield-esque falsetto. Between the song's title and a refrain declaring the boy's “first kiss was the floor,” “Orlando” plays like a eulogy for the (mostly black and brown) queer lives lost in the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub. More often, the opposite effect is achieved: Hooks sung by a Greek chorus of revolving guests take the form of positive affirmations, beckoning Hynes and the listener out of the haze of despair. The most audacious of these guest voices comes from Puff Daddy, who brings a heartfelt motivational speech and a warmly nostalgic association with '90s R&B to the aptly named “Hope.” Los Angeles-based vocalist Georgia Anne Muldrow's jazz-inflected interjections on “Runnin'” are as haunting as they are inspirational: “You and your soul are never not one/Rise and shine.”
By Negro Swan's closing track, “Smoke,” Hynes is singing an affirmation of his own: “The sun comes in/My heart fulfills within.” The album's arc, from justifiable despondency to self-determined optimism, feels both timeless and remarkably of the times—a natural outgrowth of the blues tradition and a part of the contemporary explosion of black consciousness into the mainstream. It's not always a smooth one: The ecstatic climax of “Charcoal Baby” is followed immediately by the sound of a gunshot, as if to emphasize the fragility of joy in a society that's systemically hostile to black and queer people. But it's this ability to capture both sides with equal commitment—the struggle and the resistance through self-love—that makes Negro Swan Hynes's most assured, accomplished, and significant album to date.