NEGRO SWAN: THE ALBUM THAT DARED TO EXPLORE EVERYTHING HUMAN
by AURELLI LAZUARDI (Singapore)
Issue 2.1 April 2020
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 in 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 delves 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 reach 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.
Dev’s first track “Orlando” explores his experiences with bullying and being "sucker punched down" during adolescence due to his skin colour. "First kiss was the floor" he sings, a comparison that displays the effects and consequences of trauma. As the chorus arrives, the song transforms into a more acoustic track with swooning harmonies, and we can hear trans activist Janet Mock talking about “doing too much” in a “culture that doesn’t allow [marginalised people] to excel at anything.” By the time the song concludes, Dev’s “first kiss” with the floor is seen as an act of defiance as Janet continues to speak on finding empowerment from oppression.
One of the strongest tracks is the seventh, “Charcoal Baby.” Dev sings: "No one wants to be the odd one out at times / No one wants to be the Negro Swan.” Native to Australia, the black swan has long been prized by the indigenous community for its unparalleled beauty. But during the 1800s, European colonizers associated the bird with evil and viewed them as ugly and unwelcome due to their colour. In this song, the black swan symbolises the categorisation, ostracisation, and alienation that marginalised people experience. It drives home the 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 captures the authenticity and raw emotion that comes with dealing with depression and self acceptance. Though he states, “It’s considered a taboo to talk about mental illnesses in the black community,” his fourth track “Hope” incorporates the idea of acceptance and mental illnesses while discussing the effects that racism has on him. The song opens with just Dev singing in an angelic and otherworldly falsetto: “Follow that sea / Chase what you know / Cover your weave / Jump in the flow,” exploring the idea that you must cut the roots of your culture in and suppress your emotions and identity in order to be accepted in the “flow” of the “sea.” After a two-second silence, 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 signals a mood shift. “What’s it gonna take for you to believe me? / Is this the way that you want to pretend?” R&B singer Tei Shii comes in as a second voice encouraging the acceptance of identity and culture and deterring listeners from pretending to be something they’re not.
In its best moments, Negro Swan encapsulates the idea of what it’s like to belong to a marginalised group. Set over gorgeous production and blurring the boundaries between indie experimentalism and underground pop, Devonté Hynes has successfully created a fabulous collection of cascading sounds, acting as the voice for the oppressed, discriminated, and marginalised all over the world.
Aurelli Lazuardi, 17, is a student based in Singapore with a passion for writing. She believes that there is strength and beauty within words and expresses herself through music and fashion. With an eye for capturing artistic intention, she hopes to continue writing and exploring her passions through the medium of journalism.