Blood Orange Negro Swan Domino
Ten years ago, Devonté Hynes released a song called Tell Me What It’s Worth as the orchestral pop project Lightspeed Champion. The song is a mid-’00s indie staple, but one lyric has stood the test of time: “Negroes turn a blueish grey when they’re dead/ Well that’s funny ‘cos I’ve just turned bright red,” Hynes sings in his signature east London accent.
Unsurprisingly, the line sticks out because of the word “negroes” – not “niggas”, a reclaimed word black artists often use, but “negroes” – clinical, raw, historical. My mother, who was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1950, bears the word “negro” on her official birth certificate. In this context, the past isn’t the past at all for black communities. And as such you can’t help but pause to digest the title of Hynes’ fourth studio album as Blood Orange, Negro Swan, as a stark comment on the complexity of expressing natural beauty in a world where your very status as a human being can, at times, seem more precarious than it ever ought to.
Hynes has described Negro Swan as “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color.” The interesting thing about the album is that musically, it doesn’t actually sound dark. It’s not necessarily uplifting either, it just feels real, like a mainline straight into Hynes’ psyche. Lead single Charcoal Baby is an ambling pop-funk tune that pits Hynes’ insecurities against a disjointed, catchy guitar riff. The track is cut through with languorous keyboards, smooth flutes and lush saxophones, lulling the listener into a warm embrace that belies the song’s message. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/ No one wants to be the negro swan,” Hynes croons, recalling the fable of the ugly duckling. Only in this retelling, even the duckling’s transformation isn’t enough to assuage the judgement it feels. However, it also echoes African American comedian Paul Mooney’s infamous saying: “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga.” Negro Swan is, above all else, unapologetically black, and its magic lies in finding the celebration amidst the struggle.
Blood Orange is one of the very small handful of artists for which a Prince comparison isn’t unwarranted – not only for his virtuosic musicianship, but also for the way he uniquely married his race with his talent. Saint is the song that most vividly summons the spirit of the Purple One, its sparse ‘80s backbeat skittering under Hynes’ crystal clear tenor. There’s something quasi-spiritual about the way he delivers his lines: on Hope, a track notable for including additional vocals by Tei Shi and Puff Daddy, his voice sounds angelic in the intro, echoing towards the heavens. The juxtaposition between Hynes and Puff Daddy, once the posterboy for ‘90s hip-hop extravagance, works exceptionally well, peeling away Diddy’s macho exterior. “What is it going to take for me not to be afraid to be loved the way I really want to be loved?” is not how one would expect the CEO of Bad Boy Records to close out a feature, but Hynes’ subtly beautiful production gives him the space to break down his own barriers.
Hynes’ knack for collaboration also lends Negro Swan its collective, communal aspect – few others artists could put Puff and someone like transgender writer and activist Janet Mock on the same record. Mock’s track is an interlude called Family, where she muses on the connection between traditional family units and the communities that minorities build out of social necessity. “I think they’re the spaces where you don’t have to shrink yourself,” she posits, over (even more) improvised saxophones. “Where you don’t have to pretend, or perform.” It’s clear that through this album’s 16 introspective, tender and heart-rending tracks, this is the kind of world Dev Hynes is striving to create through his music: one where the negro swan isn’t only desired, but allowed to soar.