Blood Orange’s New Album Takes You on a Hazy Trip Through Funk and Soul
Art is therapeutic by nature, as it represents the sharing of ideas. It exists to convey one’s thoughts, abstract or otherwise. When you create such art, you release your feelings for the people around you to evaluate, and if it moves an individual, they in turn may share their own feelings. In turn, a community forms, a community that uses art to discuss and to heal. It becomes a place of refuge, a place to express yourself without fear of judgement. Communities like these have proved vital not just to the creation of art, but to the wellbeing of those who create it. Negro Swan, Dev Hynes’ fourth album under the moniker Blood Orange, seeks to celebrate these communities.
A musical love letter to the power of collaboration is not a surprise considering Hynes own musical history. Despite now being known primarily for his work as Blood Orange, Hynes for some time released folk music in relative obscurity as “Lightspeed Champion”, before rising to prominence for pitch-perfect pop collaborations with Solange and Sky Ferreria.
His two albums since then, Cupid Deluxe and Freetown Sound (both released to critical acclaim), were themselves chock full of guest spots the likes of which included Skepta, Caroline Polachek, Nelly Furtado and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Hynes’ ability to meld seamlessly with such a wide variety of artists is indebted to his complete understanding of seeming every style or genre of music he attempts to perform. This skill, his encyclopedic knowledge of music, is used on Negro Swan to create something entirely unique. He has never been a stranger to the emulation of sounds from the past: Cupid Deluxe felt like a melancholic reimagining of an “80’s Greatest Hits” compilation.
Negro Swan, however, combines aspects from near every style of black popular music. Groovy 70’s basslines and swinging Soulquarian-esque drums are juxtaposed against jazzy saxophone solos or the muted guitars and cool synths of contemporary alternative-R&B.
At no point, however, does Negro Swan feel derivative, something which is owed not just to Hynes’ ability to modernise these older sounds, but also his own confidence in his songwriting.
Blood Orange’s prior albums were primarily hook focused. Songs, while not necessarily traditionally structured, all revolved around anthemic choruses. Negro Swan, by contrast, is no less melodic but eschews the idea that a song needs to be built around its hook. Melodies are free to exist independently, to float around and build towards nothing, never needing to be repeated. If attempted by a lesser artist, this could lead to the ideas introduced feeling underdeveloped, but Hynes’ tunes are so catchy and well performed that instead, they all feel strong enough to stand alone.
No song finishes how it starts, and the constantly shifting nature of the sounds and melodies being introduced lends the album a unique ethereality. This is perhaps best exemplified by one of the album’s singles, “Jewelry”, which starts as a synth-soaked slow jam, morphs into a twinkly sounding ballad laden with wonky percussion, and ends with a pitch-shifted rap from Hynes being delivered over a gentle electric guitar. Bizarre moments of transition such as these exist all the way through the album, but the strength of Hynes’ songwriting merges all these gorgeous sonic textures in a way that make them all feel seamless.
Negro Swan, because of this, is an album that undoubtedly rewards those who listen to it in full – many songs feel like fragmented sounds and melodies trying to come together to complete each other, but never quite manage to do so. As a result of this, however, when the album allows them all to combine to form a more traditional sounding anthemic song, it is immensely rewarding. “Charcoal Baby”, the seventh track on the album, features near all the sounds heard in the album to that point: funky basslines from “Orlando”, biting percussion and jazzy saxophones from “Saint”, the mystical flutes and ice cold synths from “Take Your Time” and Jewelry”, respectively.
However while in those songs those elements existed independently, in “Charcoal Baby” they come together to form something greater and more beautiful than the sum of their parts. It and the Steve Lacy backed “Out Of Your League”, make up the album’s two most traditional songs, which serve as climaxes to its explorations of sounds and ideas throughout.
The album’s title naturally calls to mind themes of racial prejudice, alienation, and beauty, and these themes are dealt with consistently in the albums lyrics. Hynes refers consistently to his own feelings of isolation, mentioning the homophobic bullying he dealt with as a child on “Orlando” and “Dagenham Dreams”, as well as his desperation to feel solidarity with others on “Charcoal Baby” and “Chewing Gum”. Spoken-word monologues from guest speakers (including, bizarrely, P Diddy) discuss instead the difficulties that lead to these feelings of isolation within Dev – the fact he grew up in a community that shunned him either for his personality or his appearance, and not a supportive one.
These guest speakers talk about their refusal to shy away from who they are, and how they believe in the importance of community, a community that can serve as a family, as an institution to encourage and inspire those within it. As the album progresses, the lyrics become progressively more self-assured and hopeful, until by the closer, “Smoke”, Dev proudly announces himself “pretty as fuck.” Despite, in “Charcoal Baby”, claiming that “nobody wants to be the Negro Swan”, he finds, with the help of a community of like-minded people, pride.
The profundity of these themes doubles when contrasted with the actual sonic content of the album. The scattering of different sounds, pulling from all decades and styles, forms a collage, a collection of ideas that when put together form a unified aesthetic representing the hundreds of artist communities that also inspired millions to find pride in themselves, including Dev Hynes himself.
Negro Swan is a celebration of community, a celebration of art, and a celebration of the ability of these things to heal, and with it, Dev Hynes has created an album as good, if not better, as any other under the name Blood Orange, the beauty of both its philosophy and its boundless creativity shining through every second of its runtime.