Opening to the ambient sounds of New York traffic, ‘Negro Swan’ is another fantastic chapter in the career of music polymath Dev Hynes. In the two years since ‘Freetown Sound’, his last album as Blood Orange, the Ilford-born songwriter / producer / director / player of multiple instruments has travelled the world, hopping from – as he put it in a recent interview – “hotel room or Airbnb”, trying to get studio time with whatever equipment he has. The results of those sessions sees ‘Negro Swan’ become Dev’s most autobiographical work to date, telling stories of life, lost, love, anxiety, and – in the case of opening song “Orlando” – getting jumped in school. You can take the boy out of east London….
In a recent New York Times profile on the artist, producer Fred Macpherson described Dev Hynes’ musical method as “releasing music that sounds like demos” , and ‘Negro Swan’ speaks to that piecemeal approach of music making. He cherry-pickis jazz piano, unstructured guitar and collaborators including A$AP Rocky, Steve Lacy and singer Ian Isiah to create nourishing layers of melancholy R&B pop. There are not many people in the world who could make Diddy have a moment of sunglasses-off vulnerability, but here he is on fourth track ‘Hope’, asking, “What’s it going to take for me not to be afraid to be loved / The way I really want to be loved?”
The introspection on ‘Negro Swan’ is accompanied by a confident desire to be loved and understood. Dev sings on seventh track ‘Charcoal Baby’: “No one wants to be the odd one out at times / No one wants to be the Negro swan”, and the album is afforded a unique sonic energy by the push-pull that comes with wanting to be accepted by the group while also wanting what makes you different and special to be acknowledged. ‘Negro Swan’ sounds like the deep therapy that comes with a house party hitting 4am.
Spoken-word interludes from writer and transgender activist Janet Mock pepper the album, punctuating the stream-of-conscious, journey-into-the-unknown experience. At times, ‘Negro Swan’ crosses over from album and into a radio station from a world just outside ours; Dev Hynes has created a fabulous collection of cascading sounds.