Blood Orange - Negro Swan
By: Thomas Rodriguez
How often have you ever felt like a stranger in the crowd, an outsider looking into the world around you? Just about everyone has felt that isolated, doubting feeling in their gut that nags and nags that you may just not be accepted by others. The Ugly Duckling story, in which the titular “ugly duckling” becomes a beautiful swan accepted by all, is one that’s been passed down and told to everyone who’s ever had this problem in their lives, and still resonates with anyone dealing with a lack of self love. Negro Swan, the latest LP from British R&B artist Devonté Hynes, (also known as Blood Orange) is the latest R&B take on this classic tale. It’s incredibly poignant as an in-depth look at what it’s like being different, and bursts with emotion in production and lyricism, combining to make one of the most smooth and insightful releases of this year.
Among all the things that Negro Swan does, its crowning achievement is its way of making itself truly intimate and unique. You feel like you’re strolling through Hynes’ mind as you listen to the dreamlike instrumentals splattered throughout the 16 tracks of the project. “Take Your Time” and “Holy Will” are extremely bare, with only a few beautiful keys and woodwinds accompanying the former and a few guitar strums being the base for the latter. The recording sounds nearly off the cuff for a good deal of these songs and many others on the project, but it all accentuates the personal edge the album goes for; you feel like you’re a fly on the wall watching Hynes grow into a more self accepting person through his stream of consciousness lyricism on love, self-hatred, homosexuality, and fear of the weird.
While the album is relatively subtle and raw, the instrumentals still grab your attention; “Runnin’” sounds like a ballad sung around a warm fire on a winter’s night, while “Orlando” sets a great tone with its sensual guitar licks and soft percussion. Occasionally, the songs do run criminally short, like on the groovy “Minetta Creek,” but the actual song production there is excellent in keeping with the Negro Swan message. Like the production, the collaborations mostly knock it out of the park and help sell the various themes of the album: Puff Daddy and Tei Shi are excellent at conveying a desire for affection on the 90’s throwback “Hope,” and Janet Mock’s various interviews throughout the LP are equally poignant and hilarious.
On the other hand, A$AP Rocky sounds like he’s on a completely different planet on “Chewing Gum,” and his excessive hoe bragging kind of weighs the song down.
Negro Swan, despite having a few collaborators, truly belongs to Devonté Hynes. The album is very much like a Pollock painting, where he splatters every single one of his emotions on the canvas. His subject matter can be dark, tear-inducing, or gleeful, but it all fits the message of he goes for: even the ugly duckling of the neighborhood can still be beautiful. Behind the 80’s pop throwbacks of “Charcoal Baby” and “Out Of Your League” lies someone who has been pushed by society to conform, but refuses to change. It’s equally saddening and uplifting to watch Hynes struggle throughout the album, but the ride itself is amazing. Occasionally the actual song writing (lyrics combined with the music) is less engaging because of a lack of truly catchy hooks on the album, but the project makes up for it with sheer emotion. It’s hard to go through the tracklist and not find a song that gives you something to feel.
If there’s something to take away from the dreamlike, raw journey of Negro Swan, it’s definitely to appreciate your uniqueness. Sure, some people may want you to change, and you may even want to change yourself just to make others happy, but if you take Negro Swan’s lyrical and sonic approach at being different, you may just find that inner swan of yours.