Review Summary: No interpretation necessary.
I’m sure it’s a cliche to describe Negro Swan
as “dreamy,” but it’s the first word for Blood Orange’s latest release, even if it's not the perfect one. In fact, “dreaming” is the first word we hear from Dev Hynes lips on opener “Orlando,” a track which convincingly presents an attractive soundscape of city life, filtered through hazy R’n’B with jazzy and funky leanings. It encapsulates the album at it’s best; electrifying and soothing at once, filled to the brim with ideas and sounds, directly concentrated in calming the listener's anxieties while at the same time challenging them. Because while R’n’B may be rooted in smoothness, relaxation isn’t the first thing on Hynes’ mind.
In fact, his message is rather distractingly plastered all about the album. Interviews with transgender personality Janet Mock slip in every crack of this record, hiding at the end of the songs, in interludes, and slapped in the middle of tracks at seemingly random moments. These monologues reveal clever and important insights into how someone who might normally feel like an outsider can be at home in society through their own devices, but none of them feel particularly necessary by the end of the album. These points are already made clear through the music and in the lyrics; the album is called Negro Swan
for crying out loud. The countless outros and interludes serve only to make the themes even more obvious, while simulataneously distracting from and even undermining the music, such as on “Jewelry,” which feels like several interludes haphazardly fused together with a topic rather than competent songwriting.
That isn’t to say that Hynes isn’t talented. The atmospheres presented here are often unique, drawing from disparate influences to create something truly warm and inviting, even when the album bridges filler territory with standard R’n’B cuts like “Dagenham Dream” and “Nappy Wonder.” The hazy sounds mesh effortlessly with his floating vocals, which take on an androgynous quality that offers another distinctive sound from the record. Still, his voice doesn’t always sound truly natural in this state. There are times when it feels like a desired effect, something being strained for rather than a happy accident. Come to think of it, a lot of the album feels like it’s reaching for another voice. Whether it be in him hopping around different vocal stylings rather than settling into one that’s uniquely and naturally his, or in hiding behind Mock’s analogous perceptions, thus allowing her to become the main thematic voice on his own record.
Regardless, it shouldn’t be said that Negro Swan
is ineffective as a statement. Blunt, yes, but it’s assured in its own way. What frustrates is merely that it seems to be stretching toward a dreamlike sound that might entrance the listener into itself so that they’d be subliminally left susceptible to its ideas and movements. Because what makes dreams so alluring is their ambiguity. Searching for a message to interpret where you aren’t even sure there is one. Maybe thats why this only feels like half a dream. Half asleep, and half painfully awake.
Sometimes, we should let the music speak for itself.