Devonte Hynes, the UK-born man behind Blood Orange has had a slow growing career over the course of three releases. His third as pseudonymous Blood Orange, Freetown Sound, catapulted him to near-superstar status in the alternative R&B scene. His follow-up, Negro Swan, finds Hynes looking inward–searching for meaning in his own coming-of-age story.
The black swan theory was put forward by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, scholar and statistician, to explain the nature of events that are considered to be huge outliers. These events are extremely rare, but with the knowledge of hindsight their rarity can be easily explained away. In Negro Swan, as Hynes looks backward into his own life, he is not interested in any kind of oversimplification.
Or as Hynes put it on “Charcoal Baby,” “No one wants to be the odd one out. No one wants to be the Negro Swan.” Throughout, Hynes tells a prolonged story of growing up, looking around at one’s surroundings, and coming to the conclusion: I do not belong here. In opening track, he recounts a bullying episode in childhood by almost sensually whispering “First kiss was the floor.” Chilling.
Negro Swan is an album that’s very easy to listen to. Hynes’ voice is gentle but passionate, the production elegant, ready for lounging at home, or even drifting off into meditation or a dream. All of the sounds expected to be played in a young black man’s household are well executed: R&B, funk, soul, and touches of jazz instrumentation. And used to tell stories of love, life, anxiety, or fear.
All of this is produced with updated sounds and techniques that sound fresh, never backward looking or retro. And if the production doesn’t place this album as necessarily current, the neo-Soul chord experiments in the third track “Take Your Time” does the job. This is an album that had to have been made in the 2010s.
At times the album, as it hits the central tracks, blends otherworldly R&B sounds, ad-lib gospel singing, spoken world, and ambient sounds creating a world so dense and nearly tangible that it creates the feeling of having fallen asleep with the radio on, awaking not knowing what was dream, and what was beamed in by radio waves. Both the dream and radio waves now drifting off hiding their answers.
Like a lot of the alternative R&B scene, this album will appeal most to a younger, Millennial audience. However, it’s black sheep messaging will appeal to an audience outside of the black UK neighborhoods where the story has its roots.
The no-brainer is if you’re a fan of alternative R&B, you’ve been awaiting this release, acts like: How to Dress Well, Sampha, or Rhye. Fans of synthpop like Chairlift or Toro Y Moi will find much to enjoy in the up-to-date production.
Fans slightly older who have been following the synthpop and chillwave scenes like Twin Shadow, or even on the trip-hop side of alternative R&B like Little Dragon should give Negro Swan a try. Then there’s the more psychedelic side of the album that will appeal to fans of Unknown Mortal Orchestra or Deerhunter.