Controlling the context of your creation is something of a fantasy for any artist, but especially a Black artist. Though we remain the wellspring of culture in America, the musings of Black people are never just left for us alone. Yet it is precisely this control of narrative that makes Blood Orange such a singular artist. With his newest LP, Negro Swan, Dev Hynes explores the contradiction of a high-visibility life without ownership or control of how your actions are interpreted and the boundaries one must make to reclaim them. The world he’s created continues his story from Freetown Sound: a sharing of his life’s traumas as he goes through them, processes them, and then recounts them back to the audience. The magic of his music is not just in this retelling but in his commitment to bringing us to him, ensuring we are not left with much space to misunderstand. Blood Orange asks that you empathize with the facts as they are, as they exist for real people in the real world, and not just as you can contort them to yourself.
Negro Swan is a fully immersive soundscape and exhibition that seeks to extend empathy to those in the culture who need it most. The album’s opening track, “Orlando,” starts off like an easy listen until its gut-wrenching lyrics come into focus. With his signature lilt, Hynes sings of youth struck down in its innocence, whether fatally or simply through bullying. As he softly repeats the line “First kiss was the floor,” one feels a pain that is direct—not full of pity but asking for true connection. In finding his own voice Hynes speaks to the truth with crystal clarity, and it’s within these boundaries he creates that we find the gift he’s offering, but only on his terms.
The construction of each song combines jazz-level technicality and melodies with the kind of knocking bass usually reserved for club tracks—some smoothly, like an R&B tune, and some more chaotic, more like rock. “Jewelry” shines precisely in its disjointedness while “Dagenham Dream” and “Nappy Wonder” sound like Blood Orange staples: dreamy piano interspersed with stark drums that cannot help but make you dance. Still, as much as the beats inspire listeners to lose themselves, the lyrics tether them back to reality, and to Hynes’ story as he records it. A simple verse like “Dreaming of the place / Bring myself away / Like in Barking days” connects the listener directly with the memory of a boyhood spent skating in London and the freedom of such a time in one’s life.
On Swan, Hynes invites author, TV host/producer, and trans rights activist Janet Mock to be his narrator. Mock, who is a physical embodiment of the intersectionality of all the groups Hynes connects with, speaks throughout the album of being warned against “doing too much,” the dangers of allowing yourself to be seen fully, and the true meaning of community. Hynes agrees with her on wax and also seems to be following her advice, decidedly letting himself quite loose—though “loose” for him still involves intense and immaculately detailed production.
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These are all parts of the whole, and Hynes doesn’t just walk the line but jumps back and forth over it as much he wants. His mastery and comfort extends to the way he welcomes collaborators. “Saint” features a multitude of vocals from friends like BEA1991, Aaron Maine (Porches), Ava Raiin, and Adam Bainbridge (Kindness), and it’s delivered and tuned with a conductor’s knowing hand. Nobody steals a song from Blood Orange; they sit for him and allow him to paint them into his world. Even the venerable King Of Black Excellence, Diddy, appears on the track “Hope,” with all the swagger of his ’90s days, only to calmly break down in the end about his fear of being loved the way he would like to be. It’s a rare moment for the mogul to claim any weakness, let alone admit that something so free is completely out of his grasp. But Diddy is believable when he says that it’s Hynes who gives him hope for the person he can be. It serves as a testament to how far Blood Orange is able to extend his empathy to his people.
By embracing, exploring, and nurturing his own vulnerability, Hynes creates something of a womb. As his invited guests we do well to listen with open minds and hearts, to allow him to regenerate us. To those with history and understanding of Black art, this all makes perfect sense: We create to soothe, to teach, to learn, to record, and to exist. It is very much the essence of our culture. At the end of Swan’s final track, “Smoke,” the beat drops and Hynes sings, “The sun comes in, my heart fulfills within.” With this the listener is reminded that Blood Orange is not sharing the story of Black/queer/marginalized people for anything but a chance to bring himself and anyone else who can understand a feeling of peace. He’s given us not just a great album, but a piece of himself that stands as a whole truth that need not be escaped, but rather, treasured.
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