Devonte Hynes has explored punk in his teens with Test Icicles, orchestral pop under the name of Lightspeed Champion, and as Blood Orange, perhaps his most successful and critically acclaimed project, he has made four albums underpinned by R’n’B and electronica. Negro Swan, his latest, explores depression - his own and other people's - along with the anxieties suffered by LGBT community and people of colour. LP and CD on Domino.
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We have ‘Freetown of Sound’ to thank for everything. It unlocked Dev Hynes, an artist gingerly stepping forward into new ideas and sounds, making a whole new artist of him again. On top of years and years of musical reimagination, the record of deeply political funk and synth-pop saw Hynes explore the potential for big, expansive narratives and differently structured storytelling. And now the rewards are showing; ‘Negro Swan’ is another brilliant realisation of a Blood Orange who is both daring and careful, high-concept and in the details.
As with ‘Freetown Sound’, Hynes has made ‘Negro Swan’ that rare thing: a deeply personal record, it’s also generous in its outreach, speaking directly to marginalised people suffering depression specific to their experiences of racism and queer discrimination. It shares in other stories and feelings, bringing in a longlist of collaborators who act as musical mediators, involving themselves in Hynes’ pieces without really becoming central to them. In so doing, the record becomes a kind of communal tone poem, never telling one story. In fact, ‘Negro Swan’ doesn’t really tell stories: its music is gorgeous, soft, smooth, almost ambient amidst the occasional verses and vocal melodies. If these are songs, they are anachronistic songs, understanding that depression is not straightforward, or linear, or easy to wring a good rhyme pattern out of.
As such, this record might feel more meandering than ‘Freetown Sound’; it still has the same segues, but the songs do not hit with the same blunt impact: instead they meditate a little longer, meandering and dancing around direct communication. The mellow and melancholy first half of the record has lyrical aphorisms that turn to whispers on the wind: Hynes’ hums on “Take Your Time” are lost to a gorgeous keyboard motif, interloping backing vocals and breathy flutes. It is a record in which the threads fall apart, rather than come together.
The more bombastic hitmakers, such as the funky “Charcoal Baby”, come in with an immediate effect, their hooks swirling around in a circular motion rather than pressing forward. Other tunes detach into miasmic collages, playing with earth and air and turning hooks to hymns: “Holy Will” is a gorgeous, scattershot tune of which Ian Isiah’s searing vocals serve as only one fragment. From song to song, there’s so much happening, and so much stagnating -- things changing and staying the same at hyper-speed slowness. Way, way more listens are needed for me to parse this record's beguiling structure, but it's another amazing peak in Dev Hynes' now lofty career.
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