The timing of the release of a new Blood Orange album always weirdly aligns with the landscape of the socio-political climate and current events that are happening around the globe. Many artists are influenced by the state of their surroundings so sometimes the material seeps out of them without really thinking about it, but everything that Devonté Hynes creates seems to come from a place of intention. His last full-length album Freetown Sound dropped in 2016 at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement—according to an article from Smithsonian Magazine, the phrase had been tweeted more than 30 million times that year. The project served as a window into his British heritage as he depicted the journey of his parents who emigrated from Sierra Leone and Guyana as well as the ongoing development of his identity since he immigrated to the United States.
Negro Swan dives even deeper into the black psyche as Hynes captivatingly articulates his inner exploration of black existence. In a press release, he explained how the album not only focuses on some of the traumas that can lead to black depression, but also extends the lens to the ongoing anxieties of queer people of color. Before being exposed to this album, the general public was forced to confront some of these hardships head on through the groundbreaking films Sorry To Bother You and BlacKkKlansman. Something that Hynes has in common with directors Boots Riley and Spike Lee is the ability to make progressive black art that speaks volumes of truth from a unique perspective. And even though the narrative comes from a “for us by us” (FUBU) mentality with elements that are universally understood, these black creatives willingly use their work as a method to engage with a white audience rather than exclude them entirely.
Even though the opening track “Orlando” casually touches on some of the darker aspects of Hynes’ childhood and the bullying that he endured atop a mellow rhythm that almost distracts you from being triggered, I couldn’t help but view it as a subtle reference point to the tragic nightclub shooting back in 2016. The cover art is represented to the fullest on the song “Saint” which casts the image of the black body as something holy and deserving of worship. “I got to see you live for more/ You said it before/ You wish I’d seen the saint you were before,” he pleas. “Your skin’s a flag that shines for us all/ You said it before/ The brown that shines and lights your darkest thoughts.”
The loudest outcry for optimism can be heard on “Hope” which is anchored by Tei Shi’s floating vocals paired with Puff Daddy’s grounding spoken word flow. A speech from Janet Mock eases listeners into “Jewelry” as she explains the power of occupying spaces where you weren’t originally invited and doing the most in the process. In an interview with Pitchfork, Hynes explained how the guitar-driven track “Charcoal Baby” is his way of celebrating the beauty of black skin—it captures the contagious energy of pure black joy. At the same time, the song also repeatedly begs the question “Can you break sometimes?”
Dating as far back as slavery, black people have always been portrayed as these strong things that can be beaten down but never broken. Of course, everyone knows this to be fictional—even several generations later, members of the black community are still healing the wounds that were passed down from centuries of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of white supremacists. Instead, we are now beckoned to put a price on the exploitation of their suffering. “Vulture Baby” alludes to the pattern of culture vultures a.k.a. white artists that unapologetically participate in cultural appropriation for the sole purpose of making a profit, but camouflage it as an experimental phase. While the A$AP Rocky and Project Pat-assisted “Chewing Gum” is riddled in oral sex metaphors, the track expresses the sense of frustration that stems from this cycle of pain. Anyone that has experienced trauma will be familiar with this type of exhaustion, a burden that is so hard to carry alone.
The one song that feels slightly off is the gospel-tinged tune “Holy Will”—a friend of mine pointed out that it sounds like it could have been the B-side from Frank Ocean’s Blonde and ever since, I can’t shake off the accuracy of the comparison. While the presence of Janet Mock on this project is powerful beyond measure, at times it feels a bit overdone. Her outro is the only compelling part of “Dagenham Dream,” but listeners can fast-forward to “Nappy Wonder,” an emotionally gripping track that features Kelsey Lu. It’s almost like the volume of Hynes’ voice increases levels as he repeats the lines “Feelings never had no ethics/ Feelings never have been ethical.”
As always, Hynes wants to inspire his followers to overcome obstacles that are stacked against them and spread a hopeful message to carry on behind a symphony of sound that pulls from alt-R&B, old-school hip-hop, indie rock, bedroom pop and soul music. This mission reminds me of a quote from Hafiz of Shiraz that is ingrained in the back of my mind: “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” Even though “no one wants to be the negro swan,” that never stops non-melanated folk from crossing over boundaries into spaces where they do not belong without permission. Black culture is not a phase, learn to respect it.