Review: ‘Negro Swan’ is a pertinent, genre-crossing masterpiece

by Madison Wilson | 10/4/18 2:05am

Is it indie pop? Techno? R&B? Hip-hop? Blood Orange’s new album “Negro Swan” revives Devonte Hynes’s genre-transcending sound with an earnest meditation on the state of those existing on the fringes of society.

Hynes calls the album a meditation on “black depression.” He extends this idea to queer folks as well, creating a central theme based on exclusion and identity. Hynes discusses physical exclusion but also the mental damage that alienation and body-soul dissociation can cause.

The work begins with a discussion of social issues at large. “Orlando,” the opening track, features street sounds that blend easily into a synth and bass-heavy loop, placing the listener in a state of limbo — this will continue, on and off, for the remainder of the record — that an alarm noise rudely interrupts. The refrain, “First kiss was the floor,” loops throughout, evoking an incident of bullying from Hynes’s childhood that illustrates his feelings on social politics at large.

Alarms and sirens will continue throughout the work. They are, as narrator Janet Mock later explains in “Runnin,’” a symbol of waking up to internalized oppression and marginalization. Mock, a transgender rights activist, journalist and author, narrates throughout “Negro Swan.” Her presence is very intentional –— as a trans woman, Mock has dealt with exclusion and displacement from a very young age. Her insight grounds the work and transports it from a place of ethereal meditation to reality. She specifically focuses on the characteristics of physical and mental space, saying that we are able to create spaces that reflect our identity and feel safe, especially as public spaces continue to become more and more divisive.

“Take Your Time” is the thesis of the work. Here, Hynes expands on themes of identity, external exclusion, internal feelings of dissociation and how these themes all interplay to create “black depression” and separated society. He laments, “You can’t keep placing yourself above,” begging the listener to ignore outward voices and maintain their identity. His words stand out against a looping, deep space-like synth, again conflating the urgency of his message with the constancy of unequal social conditions.

Pre-released singles “Jewelry” and “Charcoal Baby” are the most mainstream tracks on the work, reflecting a Frank Ocean-esque usage of autotuned and chant-rap that still maintains Hynes’ ethereal sound. “Charcoal Baby” explains the symbol of “Negro Swan” with surprising clarity, as “no one wants to be the odd one out at times/No one wants to be the negro swan.” The image of the negro swan is one of duality — as Pitchfork explains in their review, the black swan is a creature of impressive beauty but also lives on the fringe, loved by indigenous Australians but despised by European colonizers. The modern take on this symbol is fairly clear — not much has changed.

A disquieting opener for “Holy Will” resets the tone after the fairly flat “Chewing Gum,” starting with a vortex-like conglomeration of white noise that suddenly stops to introduce something of an upbeat R&B hymn — a beautiful prayer asking for blessings. Again, Hynes refuses generic description, switching from electro-pop to hypnotic harmony with grace.

Sometimes, inclusion and exclusion in a space goes beyond the rational. “Nappy Wonder” says, “Feelings never had no ethics/feelings never have been ethical” — sometimes, the rational cannot explain feelings of exclusion, and these feelings are valid regardless of whether there is physical cause. An experimental piano riff throughout goes beyond boundaries of rhythm and melody, further emphasizing the irrational nature of human feelings, which does not make them any less real or damaging.

“Runnin’’’ rounds out the theme. It comments on feelings of displacement and internal separation, as the oppressed must change themselves to fit into increasingly exclusive spaces. Hynes says, “You and your soul are never not one,” emphasizing that identity in the body and identity in the soul are intrinsically connected. Mock discusses the buzzer motif here as well, calling it to an alarm reminding her to “stop pretending.” The exceedingly rhythmic “Out of Your League” again stands out compared to the wandering nature of “Runnin,’” but as we’ve seen, Hynes navigates the world of contradiction quite deftly.

Overall, the message of “Negro Swan” rings loud and clear. It’ll take a few listens to sink in — at first, the style is quite jarring — but perhaps this is what Hynes intends. The feeling of discomfort draw you in, forcing you to pay close attention to what Hynes is saying. “Negro Swan” will make you feel lost, confused but deeply immersed. Topically, it’s a genre-crossing masterpiece, but thematically, the work leaves a carefully crafted and lasting impression. Ultimately, as the semi-acoustic ending track “Smoke” illustrates, “Negro Swan” is exceedingly honest, and this is what draws us in.