Blood Orange: A tuneful trip to the corners of black experience
R&B / Soul
If at first you don’t succeed, try another moniker. Blood Orange is the highly successful alias of Dev Hynes. His full name is Devonté Hynes, so he isn’t a peculiar postmodern tribute to the Long Fella, inspired after hearing Double Dropping Yokes with Éamon de Valera by The Rubberbandits at a late-night session.
Previously, Hynes traded his musical wares as Lightspeed Champion, and served as a multi-instrumentalist member of short-lived English dance punk band Test Icicles. Hynes abandoned his indie schmindie experiments, moved to New York, and embraced a singular blend of full-blooded electronica, alt-pop and progressive R&B. The rest is fawning acclaim, working with Philip Glass, and being able to coax the likes of A$AP Rocky and Puff Daddy to guest star on his fourth Blood Orange album. On his rapturously received 2016 release, Freetown Sound, Debbie Harry and Nelly Furtado popped up to do the honours. In between album projects, Hynes has been moonlighting as a collaborating songwriter with illustrious names such as Solange and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Negro Swan as a title cuts right to the heart of the matter. Hynes makes this stuff look as easy as breathing, but he is constantly paddling furiously under the surface. “My newest album is an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of colour,” Hynes says.
He examines such personal territory via the medium of slickly produced beats, and solid cameos from the aforementioned heavyweight guests, but it is the spoken word excerpts by transgender rights activist, writer, and broadcaster Janet Mock that set Negro Swan apart as a piece of social commentary.
Mock appears on the lead single, Jewelry, but it is the standalone interlude Family and the extended outro to Dagenham Dream that is presumably a nod to Hynes’s English roots, that really hit home. Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy, raps alongside Canadian newcomer Tei Shi on Hope, which results in an unexpected highlight. Hope is the other central theme of Negro Swan, as Hynes says: “the underlying thread through each piece on the album is the idea of HOPE, and the lights we can try to turn on within ourselves with a hopefully positive outcome of helping others out of their darkness.”
His lyrics and bitter-sweet soundscapes suggest that Hynes has experienced a few dark nights of the soul in addition to all the universal high praise and success. He identifies this as “a reach back into childhood and modern traumas, and the things we do to get through it all”. His musical dexterity, multi-instrumentalism and single-mindedness make Negro Swan work, even though it does slightly overstay its welcome over 50 minutes. Its other Achilles heel is something that’s been a slight flaw since Lightspeed Champion; Hynes’ doesn’t have the vocal prowess to match his compositions and musicianship. Having said that, he puts in a great performance on the other pre-release single, Charcoal Baby; a shimmering slice of infectious R&B pop to sit alongside You’re Not Good Enough, Best to You, or any of his big tunes.
While the album possibly could have been stronger if about a quarter of an hour had been shorn off and left on the cutting-room floor, it is still a major release from an increasingly important artist in a day and age when transgender rights and diversity are such hot topics. In inhabiting the blurry ground between pop and R&B, sadness and joy and the whole gamut of human emotion, Hynes has crafted a very fine album, which should feature on a few best of 2018 lists when Christmas comes around, but it won’t convincingly blow the socks off the unconverted.