Blood Orange Tackles Social Issues With Effervescent Flair on ‘Negro Swan’

Dev Hynes, the multi-instrumentalist and shockingly versatile musician who records under the moniker Blood Orange, has released his new album, “Negro Swan.” Hynes describes the record as an exploration of “types of black depression,” and “anxieties of queer/people of color.” Surprisingly, the album is not as dark and sonically serious as you might expect from such a statement of intent. It’s filled with spoken-word interludes, providing social commentary, and many of the songs target the stated issues, but Hynes’ musical style is a hodgepodge of genres that aren’t particularly doomy, so it makes for a record that is both largely grave in subject matter, and overall rather effervescent is sound.

“Orlando” starts things off with some candle-lit, late night soul grooves fare. A striking feature is how delicate Hynes’ voice is, rather androgynous. In an otherwise conventional song, there are whrooming, escalating noises at certain parts, which add a lot of flavor, and end up being a recurring sound in the album. “Hope” features singer Tei Shi and rap mogul Puff Daddy making a somewhat bizarre cameo, with a bit of stream of consciousness talking midway that makes very little sense, but has the benefit of being recorded over some absolutely lovely piano.

“Jewelry” begins with one of many appearances from transgender activist Janet Mock. Her casually spoken delivery, uncalculated, with natural pauses and a rambling tendency, gives a certain authentic, sincere quality to all the songs in which she’s featured. In this one, she has a particularly memorable few lines: “People try to put us down like ‘she’s doing her most,’ or ‘he’s doing way too much.’” If taken in the context of Haynes’ “black depression” theme, this is a chilling statement, capturing the idea of, one one hand, being dismissed for merely “trying your best,” and on the other hand, being mocked for trying to hard. In a historically repressed community, this is a very real issue, and Mock has articulated it with a clearness that few others have.

A$AP Rocky shows up on “Chewing Gum,” and sounds a little different from his usual, more trendily commercial, but adding a nice touch. There’s an abrupt shift in the later portion of the track with Project Pat, in full Dirty South codeine style, pitched down, and sounding absolutely badass. “Dagenham Dream” has Haynes’ voice sounding remarkably different, and it shows off his versatility, but also can come across as a bit jokey, as he sounds as if he’s curled his lips into a tight place for the duration of the track. The whrooming sounds come back midway, and there’s some discordant noise that adds a lot of excitement.

“Nappy Wonder” is peculiar because of its title baring no ostensible relation to its lyrics. The main refrain is “My feelings never had no ethics,” seemingly an embrace of intuition rather than logical regiments, and an effective, succinct snippet at that. “Runnin’” is a toned-done soulful track, featuring Georgia Anne Muldrow, whom any righteous hip-hop fan will recognize from her feature on Mos Def’s “Roses.” She sings her R&B fare with a certain jazzy sensibility largely absent from most comparable singers, and radiates a certain innocent, vibrant energy that is simply very special. “Out Of Your League,” featuring Steve Lacy really turns up the ‘80s tendencies, and is a smooth number, possibly the catchiest of the whole set.

Overall, “Negro Swan” shuttles between many styles, retro-leaning soul, modern r&B, hip-hop, and traces of synth pop. It shows off an artist brimming with creative energy, and features an impressive roster of guests that all add their own signature charm. The record has moments when lyrics put their finger on largely ignored social realities with a precision that must be appreciated. And it tackles those harsh social issues with music that is contrastingly, on the whole, cheerful in spirit. It’s a thought-provoking, engaging release from an artist with a lot to offer.      

Negro Swan” is available Aug. 24 on Apple Music.