Black swans have long been used as a metaphor to characterize people whose significance is deemed unsuspecting due to societal biases associated with their appearance. They are outliers. In his fourth studio album as Blood Orange, British-born Devonté Hynes delves into what is is like to be a black swan in a society that continues to place outsider labels on people of colour, as well as those who are queer. “Negro Swan” is a candid and honest look at the various dimensions of Hynes’ anxiety, with accounts of personal experience and commentary from writer and transgender activist Janet Mock throughout. 

Mid-tempoed and with a steady beat, the opening track “Orlando” sets the tone for the album. Hynes’ soft vocals are the focus as he croons about being bullied and beat up at sixteen: “To feel so numb that it’s deafening, walls will give in”. It has the smooth groove of a Marvin Gaye song, but with added modernity from the synthy feel of the electric piano and twanging guitar. The beat feels familiar, reminiscent of “You’re Not Good Enough” the star track from Hynes’ 2013 album “Cupid Deluxe”. However, “Negro Swan” is lighter, more delicate and more personal than any of his preceding albums. It is a direct trip into Hynes’ somewhat-blurred and hazy mind, mapping out his struggles with anxiety and depression. “Hope”, the fourth of sixteen tracks, lays out the most explicit of some of Hynes’ uneasy thoughts. 

The track features Tei Shi, a Canadian-Colombian singer-songwriter, and a genuine monologue from Puff Daddy, in which he questions, “You know, what is it going to take for me not to be afraid to be loved the way, like, I really wanna be loved?” The use of spoken word is strong and forms a connection with the listener. We do not have to rack our brains to pinpoint an exact instance when we have been consumed by similar, anxiety-ridden banter. In such manner, Hynes makes himself, and the album as a whole, relatable.

The autobiographical nature of “Negro Swan” makes it difficult to place a label on the album; something Devonté Hynes may have done as an attempt to make categorizations indistinct. The album is not strictly one genre, but rather jumps around from synth-pop on “Saint” to hip-hop with the A$AP Rocky feature on “Chewing Gum” to gospel on “Holy Will.”

The funky bass line on “Out of Your League”, featuring Steve Lacy of The Internet, seems like it was taken directly from “Hive Mind”, the Internet’s most recent 2018 album. Each song has a vibe different from the next, but Hynes’ impressive multi-instrumental talents are enough to give the album undeniable unity. 

Located exactly in the middle of the album, and co-written with Porches’ Aaron Maine, “Charcoal Baby” acts as the heart of “Negro Swan” and is a standout track. When it was pre-released, I was instantly captivated by the clear-cut beat and prominent guitar part, adding it to my library before even reaching the end. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times”, he sings on the chorus. “Can you break sometimes?” It is the height of Hynes’ vulnerability, with emotional specificity and a wistful groove similar to that of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”. The music video that goes along with “Charcoal Baby”, directed by Crack Stevens, is a depiction of a family gathering in which Hynes is performing. It provides spot-on visuals for the spoken word that opens the track and is celebratory and uplifting, adding hope to the inherently raw lyrics.

As a musical work and as a personal statement, “Negro Swan” is a success. Devonté Hynes’ production talents are evident in the way he has managed to pair intimate memories and thoughts with instrumentation that adds emphasis to their deeper meaning. The listener will not get lost in a flurry of notes and beats, but rather feel the power of what Hynes has to say – something that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s pop-culture scene. Think back to some of the call-outs that Drake dishes out on “Scorpion” and to those from Pusha T on “DAYTONA,” both released early in the summer. “Negro Swan” is not just another addition to these diss tracks that seems to be dominating the hip-hop and rap industry. Rather, it is a refreshing and genuine work of self-expression. It is hard to imagine a listener who would not appreciate the polished and smooth, yet compelling melting pot of music that Blood Orange delivers on “Negro Swan.”