Review Summary: healerNegro Swan
is a refuge hidden in plain sight. Like most of the best art, this masterpiece was acknowledged with a nod and then ignored. This is tragic, because it bares Devonte Hynes' gorgeous soul like none of his other work. In various interviews promoting the album, he reveals deep pain, horrendous trauma, and caution before hope.
"I think people forget that I'm from Essex and had to fight, mentally and physically to, like, keep living. Being beaten up and going to hospital multiple times. Being spat on on the bus every day. I hated every living moment. I am always surprised by the amount of people that have never been punched in the face."
"Where I was in growing up, I never got that sense of community. I felt very rejected. It was something I had to really wrestle with in life, because it was very confusing … I never really blamed the kids that would beat me up. I didn't hold any disdain for them because I think it was just a result of systemic situations."
"I was a queer kid thinking of suicide. I don't know - if someone said 'it gets better' - if it would have done anything. 'It sucks now.' I don't have a place I'm getting to with this."
"This may sound bad, but I don't really root for many people. I don't think it's healthy."
Within all of this hurt and sorrow is a clear sense of balance and acceptance - he has let go of individual grudges, others' relatively easy lives create surprise rather than jealousy, and unrealistic narratives are avoided even when it would be far easier to give in to false expectations. These are not lessons earned easily, and Hynes' hard-earned wisdom is reflected in the mirrored pool that is Negro Swan
. It does not sound angry, rather intimate and open, bass humming instead of growling. It’s easy-listening with depth. Sadness is very much there, but it's there as a color on a palette, not overwhelming, which makes sense given that it was created by someone who is "not really into mourning." Regardless, that's impressive for a creation "in terms of … (Hynes) as a child," especially coming from someone whose childhood was a form of hell. Many projects exuding so much emotion insist on a difficult entry point, but this is music that can fit into virtually any scene. 2018 has seen forward-thinking music critics note the streaming economy’s incentivization of the smoothing of popular music, with the common assumption underlying such arguments being the idea that making music that everyone likes means making music that nobody really learns to love. That's certainly true in many cases, but Hynes, an artist who used to create music as abrasive as noise rock, manages to subvert that by creating a lake of material that is warm from the get-go, with no cliffs or sharks to stand in the way, still fully explorable.
The voices of others funnel in to the body of water, but not in the divisive way you might expect. Instead, this feature list is a list of performers asked to provide their input, rather than their talents, ultimately exposing the reason we really love them. Diddy gives one of the most heartwarming verses since "I'll Be Missing You," Rocky's sexual escapade somehow cuts through the misogyny that often frames his rhymes and goes straight to the joy and nostalgia, and Janet Mock's frequent commentary provides the bones of the record with explicit trans-inclusive messages of family, places, and self-concept. Meanwhile, it's the clearest Blood Orange water ever made. If it was the finale of his work under this alias, it would be a loss for the community but, ultimately, it would make sense. This is what Coastal Grooves
, Cupid Deluxe
, and Freetown Sound
have all been building to, in all their complexity, subtleties and recurrent motifs. Negro Swan
is powerful, a message of hope finally made blatant by an artist born of a scene that prides itself on its overemphasis on irony. The final lyrics here are "the sun comes in, my heart fulfills within," a message of recovery and healing.
Every few years, Dev Hynes releases a new album under Blood Orange, which gets mild fanfare and then disappears into the background, which is not the location he deserves but the place his music belongs. Like pouring water into the sand, it inevitably fades away, seeping into the ground and healing overheated bodies for a few priceless seconds. It's intentional, if a bit sad, that we never really see much of the person providing the balm: "I actively make records so that you don't think about my face." This anonymous humility seeps into all the tunnels of Negro Swan
. There are paths everywhere, with infinite potential translations. Within the unconventional melody of tracks like "Runnin'" and "Charcoal Baby," there is hope, melancholy, and acceptance, whatever is needed at the moment. Lyrically, any line can be picked apart to apply to any number of sociological theories or life experiences. Even coming from someone with a million important things to say and a million more reasons to say them, a black LGBT man in a world where straight whiteness is the definition of beauty, he still does not want to make Negro Swan
too personal, in an effort to stay inclusive: "I'm … trying to create it for myself, but everyone's welcome ... It's important for it to feel like a place." Living in 2018, it's not only easy to understand but morally defensible to fight fire with fire, so seeing someone insist on firefighting for those minorities we inevitably overlook is heroic. Rates differ by person, of course, but everyone ignores refugees in their own lives, lost souls desperately looking for a safe place to lay down their troubles. It's beautiful to see someone who has systematically been closed out of spaces opening their own doors to anyone who needs to feel the warmth inside.