Blood Orange presents a powerful meditation of life on the margins

September 14, 2018

With alias Blood Orange, Dev Hynes plays the orchestra. Blood Orange is funky R&B—think Prince with the vocals of Michael Jackson. The music project mixes a diverse range of influences to create sonic explorations of race, identity and intersectionality. Their most recent record, “Negro Swan,” prioritizes voices over music—it’s an album full of powerful, difficult ideas that’s worth listening to but isn’t quite as enjoyable as before. Of course, enjoyable is a loaded word. “Negro Swan” was not made for me but as an intense, melancholy meditation on the lives of the marginalized—it’s powerful, beautiful music that’s worth listening to.

There’s no “Best to You” on this album. “Negro Swan” is different in tone and tempo than “Freetown Sound,” Blood Orange’s 2015 album. But there doesn’t need to be one. I struggled at first with how different this record was than the one before it, but, over time, the maturity and scope of the work became more and more apparent. Hynes isn’t going for radio play here, he’s got much grander ambitions.

Most tracks feature Dev Hynes’ breathy, high-pitched vocals matched with a bass groove, but Blood Orange is particularly notable for its features; Hynes is almost never the only voice. On “Negro Swan,” we hear vocals from contributors BEA1991, Tei Shei, Puff Daddy, Project Pat, A$AP Rocky, Porches frontman Adam Maine, Kelsey Lu and others. To me, Blood Orange is at their best when letting other people speak, and this is something that Hynes excels at.

The most significant voice on the album is that of Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist and a writer, director and producer of the FX show “Pose” that ran earlier this year. Mock made news as the first trans person of color to write and direct an episode of television. Hynes uses an interview with Mock to great effect through the album. These snippets focus on identity, self-value and actualization, a theme that is reiterated throughout the record.

“An insult that we often put onto a lot of folk like, ‘You’re doing too much,’ and so a couple years ago, I was like, you know, my eternal resolution will be to do too much,” Mock says at the end of “Orlando,” the album’s first track. Hynes is able to seamlessly blend Mock’s words with the music—the fragments drift naturally in and out between songs, never jarring. “First kiss was the floor,” sings Hynes in the same song—a reference to Hynes being bullied as a child—the spoken words and lyrics fusing together to make something powerful and affecting.

We can see this work at its best in “Jewelry,” an album standout. We hear Mock again, at the beginning, saying, “So, like, my favorite images, are the ones where … someone who isn’t supposed to be there, who’s like in a space, a space where we were not ever welcomed in or we were not invited, yet we walk in and we show all the way up.” The words, backed by a soaring saxophone solo and shimmering, reverberating vocalizations, soon give way to Hynes on the first verse: “Cheap on your skin, smooth, Jewels that ring, Shine hit your eyes, Black history, Ruby ebony sides, Change my eyes for something, cool.” Then the song morphs into Hynes rapping, and then changes again, with a distorted guitar looping, reminiscent of SZA’s “Drew Barrymore,” and different background vocals. Though there are multiple transitions and contributors, the song never loses its sensibility, the disparate parts connected to the whole.

Another highlight, “Charcoal Baby,” where things start out slow, with Hynes playing guitar and providing leading vocals. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/ No one wants to be the negro swan/ Can you break sometimes?” he sings, which gives way to an interlude with Porches’ Aaron Maine and a Tame Impala-esque baseline and beat—and there’s a crazy sax solo in there too. It sounds like too much, but it’s not.

The second to last track, “Minetta Creek,” has Hynes singing, “Choose your hair and choose to get off, waste your time and pretty the thoughts, nothing is forgiven, black skin and my rhythm, and you know that it’s all at a cost.” I think Hynes is trying to delve into the difficulties of his identity, “the different weight of life,” for the marginalized, as he says in a New York Times interview. He’s creating intertextual art as a queer person of color, exploring life on the edge, of being persistently unwelcome and pushed to the breaking point.

There are glimmers of hope, like Diddy’s spoken word interlude on the aptly-named “Hope,” where he says, “You give me that hope that maybe one day I’ll get over my fears and I’ll receive.” And on the last track, “Smoke,” there’s a newfound pride in the precarious identity of a negro swan: “Balance in my hair, I’m pretty as fuck … I’m waiting for the smoke to clear.”

Using his considerable talents, Hynes is able to stitch together a fabric of different voices that feel perfectly placed and connected. As a whole, “Negro Swan,” is a cohesive, deep album, full of connected themes and ideas to be unpacked after multiple listening sessions. The club sirens, Janet Mock interviews, and funk, R&B and jazz influences help the multiple perspectives to coalesce. As a text, “Negro Swan” is a rich, dense text—the closest thing I can compare it to is Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

“Negro Swan” is a complex, intertextual album about queer people of color living in the margins, laced with some of the best music production of the year. It’s difficult and different, but it’s worth it.

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