On “Negro Swan,” Blood Orange finally takes flight

Blood Orange’s fourth studio album “Negro Swan” was released Friday. The LP is a continuation of the electronica and experimental R&B production Hynes has been fine-tuning since his musical start. (Photo courtesy of Domino Recording Company)

There is no doubt that Dev Hynes is one of the most innovative songwriters and producers of his generation. Under the moniker Blood Orange, he has found idiosyncratic ways to explore his identity and sexuality as a black man, though often taking a melancholic approach. Hynes’ latest LP, “Negro Swan,” is a continuation of the electronica and experimental R&B productions he has been working on since becoming Blood Orange ten years ago. The result is some of his best work to date. The album is both self-aware and self-assured; it is poignant in its lyrical themes, with incredibly polished productions. “Negro Swan” showcases an artist at his peak and, finally, Blood Orange has mastered the balancing of pain and hope.

“Negro Swan” is so sonically cohesive that transitions are almost indiscernible. Written and produced almost entirely independently, Blood Orange ponders the notion of self-love in the modern age. He told Dazed Digital this album was “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression… and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color.” He explores these themes by organically interweaving spoken word and poetry into the songs, which are performed by artists such as transgender activist Janet Mock and hip-hop mogul Diddy. In the introduction of the song “Jewelry,” Mock says, “People try to put us down by saying ‘She’s doing the most,’ or ‘he’s way too much,’” before asking, “but, like, why would we want to do the least?”

The poetic sentiment becomes a window into Blood Orange’s mind and perspective. The one main difference between “Negro Swan” and his last album “Freetown Sound” is the straightforwardness of his lyrics, which he accredits to his expanding audience. “It made me be maybe a little more direct in what I’m saying,” he said to Pitchfork — and he has. Never before as Blood Orange been more vulnerable or relatable.

Despite the sonic cohesiveness, the album encompasses many genres, ranging from gospel on “Holy Will” with soul singer Ian Isiah, to indie hip-hop on “Chewing Gum” which features a verse from rapper A$AP Rocky.  The diverse genres provide a way for him to enhance the different themes explored in his lyrics by giving each feeling a distinct sound. The production on “Holy Will” is reminiscent of church choirs and the lyrics speak of cleansing oneself after having sinned the night before.

As the album slides through the various genres, Hynes explores the themes of isolation and displacement, but also his own methods of escaping. On the track “Nappy Wonder,” he sings “Dreaming of the place / bring myself away / like in barking days,” in the chorus he continues, “feelings never have been ethical / feelings never had no ethics (always feeling).” “This time it’s more explicitly about skateboarding — just the escapism that I found through skating through the years, even now,” he said to Pitchfork.  

On “Chewing Gum” he uses sexual metaphors to explain what it is exactly he is escaping from — the exhaustiveness of constantly being outraged and feisty. . In the chorus, he sings “looking for the truth, for the truth, looking for the truth for the truth / tell me what you want from me.”  

“Negro Swan” is both the past, present and future of music, representing and paying homage to creatives who came before Hynes and inspired his sound, including Diddy. Simultaneously, the album remains socially relevant with themes of black liberation and sexuality paired with innovative productions that challenge the genres of pop and R&B. This album is Blood Orange at his peak; luckily for his fans, Hynes seems like he has more exploring to do.