by Jasmine Chan
Dev Hynes, under the alias Blood Orange, has returned with Negro Swan, a 16-track display of a queer person of color’s trauma and resilience in a racist and heteronormative culture. Negro Swan sounds improvised and natural, yet finished and polished in a fusion of alt-pop, indie hip-hop, progressive R&B, jazz, and spacey chill-wave. It’s as if it cannot decide on being just one thing, much like the human experience at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. As each track progresses, it evolves and morphs into something unpredictable and alive. Negro Swan also features a variety of artists, including P. Diddy, A$AP Rocky, Tei Shi, and Steve Lacy from The Internet.
The album is narrated by Janet Mock, an African-American writer, director, and transgender rights activist through snippets of recorded conversation that are sprinkled throughout the tracks. The first track, ‘Orlando,’ opens with street sounds that transport you to Hynes’ rough childhood in the city. “First kiss was the floor,” he croons in the refrain, referring to being beaten up by bullies in his youth – a traumatic experience that continues to affect him in his adult life. There is an abrupt switch in the guitar melody, and Mock enters for the first time, describing the struggle of being told “You’re doing too much” as an insult to the expression of her identity. Mock appears again in the intro of ‘Jewelry,’ a celebration of Black excellence, adding onto the concept of “Doing too much” with the response, “But, like, why would we want to do the least?” ‘Family’ is a 40 second interlude of Mock speaking over saxophone riffs, defining family as going far beyond biology for marginalized people who have to seek alternative forms of kinship and make a space for themselves in a world where they are told they do not belong.
“No one wants to be the odd one out at times / No one wants to be the negro swan / Can you break sometimes?,” Hynes sings in the album’s first single, ‘Charcoal Baby.’ These lines encompass the stress and anxiety experienced by minorities from always carrying the burden of “otherness” in their everyday lives. This is a standout track for me, as the lyrics are repetitive and simple, yet poignant in meaning as a person of color. The prominent guitar and snares set a groovy, mid-temp back-beat for the smooth, falsetto vocals, making for easy listening. ‘Vulture Baby’ follows, which Hynes has explained is about cultural appropriation in rap, playing off of the idea that white people value black culture more than black people themselves. “No one wants to be the negro swan,” except for when it is trendy and profitable for white people.
Negro Swan is Blood Orange’s darkest, most vulnerable release yet. It is an immersive experience that dives into the black psyche, while treating us with dynamic musical construction. The symbol of the Black Swan is a compelling metaphor for the experience of marginalized people, as it has been explored in various arenas throughout history. The term originates from the unexpected discovery of black swans in Australia in 1697, as only white swans were believed to exist to the Western world. In 2018, the struggle to assert that Black Lives Matter persists. In Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the black swan, Odile, deceives the Prince for his hand in marriage, ultimately leading to the death of the protagonist, the white swan, Odette. The color white is often associated with purity, innocence, and beauty, while black always has a negative connotation. The Black Swan Theory, developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, refers to unpredictable events with extreme impact that can only be rationalized in hindsight. Though the theory is originally applied to financial events, I believe that the continued fight and resilience of people of color is uprooting long-established systems of power in a way that those sitting pretty in the status quo never saw coming.