Personal, searing and close to the bone.
Sartre called it a “nervous condition”: That destructive compulsion felt by people of color to view themselves through the eyes of white supremacy. Dev Hynes, the British multi-instrumentalist and producer behind Blood Orange, deconstructs that nervous condition on his fourth full-length album, Negro Swan. At times a heartrending lament of black depression, and an ebullient assertion of black existence, it has at its epicenter the power to transmute suffering into flourishing—a metamorphosis not unlike that of a duckling into a swan.
With the dancehall-flavored Freetown Sound and the pastel ‘80s retro of Cupid Deluxe as precursors, it’s evident early on that Negro Swan is Hynes’s darkest album to date. But it’s also his most streamlined and cohesive. The music here is thoroughly pensive in its subject matter and disjointed in its unconventional beat switches. Hynes’s ability as a tastemaker comes to the forefront as well, with fruitful features from Steve Lacy, A$AP Rocky, Diddy and Ian Isiah, to name a few contributors. Hynes is personal, searing and close to the bone on Negro Swan, easily making it the most exceptional record of his career thus far.
Police sirens emerge in the murky reverie of “Dagenham Dream.” A gunshot pierces the melancholic piano of “Vulture Baby.” These instances of violence rupture the woozy soundscape of Negro Swan, serving as an indicators of the brutality of racism and casting a shadow of uneasiness over the 16-song project. On the hazy “Dagenham Dream,” Hynes relives a childhood memory of getting sent to the hospital after being jumped for his painted nails and makeup. Not conforming has dangerous consequences, Hynes is forced to learn, and performing normalcy is necessary for survival, transgender right activist Janet Mock tells us in a monologue at the track’s end. But, as much as they might want to, people of color and queer folk cannot belong, no matter how much they perform. As clouded synths unfurl over warped guitar, the solemn yearning of “Charcoal Baby” is palpable: “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/ No one wants to be the negro swan.”
Despite these woeful conclusions, other tracks here remarkably manage to glimmer with hope and resilience. “Jewelry” is a fragmented mélange of feather light saxophone, honeyed synths and sputtering drum machines, capped off by a self-possessed respite of distorted guitar. Mock again provides an illuminating interlude at the song’s beginning: “We were not ever welcomed in, we were not invited/ Yet we walk in and we show all the way up.” This urge to overcome is the bedrock of the album and the centerpiece of album closer “Smoke.” Backed solely by a springy guitar, Hynes repeats over and over the last lyrics of the album: “The sun comes in, my heart fulfills within.”
In the music video for “Jewelry” and the album’s cover art, the artist Kai the Black Angel sits on the base of a car’s open passenger window as the vehicle crawls down a city street. His posture is that of a dancer’s, just as strong as it is emotive, and perched on his back are a pair of fluffy white-feathered angel wings. With Negro Swan, Hynes paints a similar portrait of the black psyche. Like Kai, it is precariously suspended above danger, but it is also ethereal and irrepressible.