The first thing I noticed when I heard Blood Orange's Negro Swan wasn't the rhythm of the music or the percussive resonance of the drums; it was the feeling that it generated from me, it was the raw, genuine emotion that exuded from Devonté Hynes' lyrics.
Negro Swan allows Dev to address his past struggles as a young black man in the UK. He continues to delve deeper into the collective mentality of the black community, focusing on their ethnic marginalisation while drawing out themes of depression, racism, acceptance and violence through his personal experiences, forcing the listeners to sit with the bittersweet past and inconvenient present realities. Juxtaposing the dark themes of his oeuvre, he wraps his music with the sweet allure of vocals, combining it with smatterings of spoken words and rap. He fills up the silent gaps with instruments producing sounds that would reach to your soul: Dynamic drums, gentle guitars, flutes, dreamy synths and a shiver-inducing bass. He transforms progressive R&B, hip-hop, downtempo rock and psychedelic pop into a thought-provoking, pro-black sentiment; incorporating traditionally “black” genres of jazz, soul music, Memphis rap and Gospel.
His first track, Orlando, talks about Dev's experiences with bullying and being "sucker punched down" during his adolescent years due to his skin colour. "First kiss was the floor" he sings, comparing the experience with something so visceral and personal. The disparity between something so harsh and violent with something intimate allows him to display the effect and consequences of trauma. As the chorus arrives, the song transforms into a more acoustic track with swooning harmonies, and we could hear trans activist, Janet Mock, talking about “doing too much” in a “culture that doesn’t allow us [marginalised people] to excel at anything”. By the time the song concludes, his “first kiss” with the floor is seen as an act of deviance as Janet continues to talk about how to find empowerment from oppression.
One of my favourite tracks was Dev's seventh track, Charcoal Baby, where Dev sings: "No one wants to be the odd one out at times / No one wants to be the Negro Swan," The phrase “Negro Swan” refers to the slender, waterborne bird, the black swan. Native to Australia, the black swan has long been prized by the indigenous community for their exotic, unparalleled beauty. However, during the 1800s, European colonizers would associate the bird with evil; maligning them as ugly and unwelcome due to their colour. The Black Swan symbolises the categorisation, ostracisation and alienation that marginalised people feel. It drives home this idea of “rare beauty” and the duality of being both beautiful and ugly at the same time; of being delicate and fierce.
In Negro Swan, Dev manages to capture the authenticity and raw emotion when dealing with depression and acceptance of one’s self. He states that: “It’s considered a taboo to talk about mental illnesses in the black community”, but his fourth track, Hope, sees him incorporating the idea of acceptance and mental illnesses while discussing the effects that racism has on him. The song opens with just Dev on vocals, singing in a falsetto tone, seemingly replicating an angelic and otherworldly voice. He sings: “Follow that sea / Chase what you know / Cover your weave / Jump in the flow”, in this verse, Dev talks about trying to “blend in” and “fit in” with society, by “covering your weave”, he’s implying that you should cut the roots of your culture in order to be accepted in the “flow” of the “sea”; to suppress your emotions and your identity in order to feel accepted. After this, there’s a two-second silence and suddenly, we hear a tune which resembles 80s indie-funk, filled with electric guitars and melodramatic synths. Acting almost like a musical volta, the sudden change from that “angelic” vocal track to a beat-filled track throws the audience into a change in mood. “What’s it gonna take for you to believe me? / Is this the way that you want to pretend?” sings R&B singer, Tei Shi. With this verse, Tei Shi acts as a second voice, encouraging the acceptance of their identity and culture and deterring them from putting on a disguise or pretending to be something you’re not.
In it’s best moments, Negro Swan encapsulates the idea of what it’s like to be in a marginalised group. Something that I feel should be a more discussed topic. Set over gorgeous production and blurring the boundaries between indie experimentalism and underground pop. Devonte Hynes has successfully created a fabulous collection of cascading sounds, acting as the voice for the oppressed, discriminated and marginalised all over the world.