On the question of “Black depression,” Devonté Hynes summons a darker hue of the Blood Orange alias for his fourth LP Negro Swan: a partial biography embedded in a meditation on the existential perils of Black life, and the perseverance of those lives from the margins and fringes. As a conversation with Janet Mock anchors the narrative thread of the album, Hynes is unafraid of dwelling in the darkness of every grand revelation he’s uncovered in prior works. Previously, he’s explored the diaspora that put him in this moment, the evolution of Black and queer politic and the deconstruction of humanity via the way we frame and negotiate our relationships. Now, he’s wielding a newfound cleverness in his power, building a world that casts a seemingly mellow sound over the melancholy and loosening the restrictions even further to let the album turn and reverse and revel in itself. To reassert Mock’s pondering on the opener “Orlando,” this album does the most and why wouldn’t it?
While we’re immediately engulfed in the signature warmth of the Blood Orange sound, Negro Swan is undoubtedly sad, in lyric more than sonic; the raw textures of his mixing almost hide the words as if they’ll hide the scars in plain view, inviting multiple listens to uncover the many pieces in play. Within, Hynes leaves bits of a roadmap to early traumas: neighborhood bullying, navigating his gender presentation, trying to find love and never feeling quite enough of anything. Throughout, the Mock snippets provide the backbone with positive reinforcements on how to fully become oneself, choose one’s family and disavow whatever and whoever threatens one’s safety in this world. Fans of structured pop-by-the-numbers won’t find it here, as Hynes playfully splatters every idea upon the canvas, the album reprising Hynes’ cross-genre collaborative sensibilities to bring fresh ideas from unexpected sources. The transcendent Georgia Anne Muldrow is a runaway standout on late-album cut “Runnin’,” her gentle reassurances of Hynes’s worries landing like an elder in your home, a light — no, the light — leading you back home. Ian Isiah’s contributions to “Holy Will” excel in this sense as well, the Clark Sisters cover taking us to church from seemingly nowhere and reeling in and out of silence to invoke the spirit and soothe the weary.
Hynes’s vocal range, while consistently enjoyable, can only accomplish so much in certain moments, but he knows precisely whom to call when the experiments require another texture. It’s this intuition that made Hynes have to edit Diddy’s adlibs-turned-confessional on “Hope,” his exasperated assertions flanking Tei Shi’s fixating falsetto in a manner that suggests not a single Diddy Bop occurred. On “Chewing Gum,” this year’s second collaboration between Hynes and A$AP Rocky, the Kingpin Skinny Pimp and Project Pat interpolations throw a curveball as we get a Blood Orange song that manages to flip its fellatio origins into a tale of restlessness and anger at an unjust world. When Rocky does appear, his cheesiness drifts from the subject, but manages a smile or two in the boyish glee of his execution. Most notably, the visual for “Jewelry” remixes the Black man moshpit into an uncontained bliss as its participants dare the viewer to invade the space, reclaiming their control and their joy. (There’s dark skin and muscle and a pink durag and a rainbow belt, the latter image a subtle subversion that even the most seasoned outsider’s eye wouldn’t perceive it as “normal” in visuals of its ilk.) The song itself slides through three movements as uncertainty gives way to a bravado that knows the ledge, “nigga I’m feelin’ myself” interrupted by another man dead and caught on live.
Dev Hynes will forever be a man of many ideas, and Negro Swan is no exception: some songs fade quickly into nothingness, some abbreviate themselves and the 49 minutes breeze away quicker than anticipated. Perhaps the power of inversion is Hynes’s greatest trick on Negro Swan; it’s his superpower. Rap, pop, jazz, gospel, there’s a piercing cohesion to the depths of his anxieties. Taking “Charcoal Baby” as a nexus, the grappling of the unknown and the celebration of oneself remain deeply intertwined journeys, and Hynes tows this line with an intentionality leaning toward freedom. (See the following “Vulture Baby” for some of the most well-executed shade of the year.) Much like the character we explore here, the album’s identity crisis may fare a bit scatterbrained considering the depth in Hynes’s more personal anecdotes coming too few and far between. Furthermore, the album’s structure falls slightly outta tune with the third act’s more upbeat choices wedged between the bigger moments of resolution. Yet calling the album self-indulgent would neither disrupt its mission nor dispute Hynes’s brilliance; it is precisely the intention, to sort through the mess of everything. It’s what Blood Orange does: beautifully, gracefully, forward.