In what has to be one of the most hotly anticipated R&B albums this year, producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange has returned with his fourth studio album, Negro Swan.
After mesmerising people with his last release, the outstanding 2016 album Freetown Sound, an album that drew inspiration from 80s and 90s R&B and that explored issues of race relations in places like the United States, on Negro Swan, Hynes explores new territory both sound-wise and lyrically.
For starters, Hynes appears to have been inspired more by contemporary styles and sounds. This is especially the case when it comes to the production of this record which is anchored in modern R&B and hip-hop with synths and crisp beats the go to.
Thematically, Negro Swan is also a new journey for Hynes, a journey into the issue of black depression and what Hynes himself calls the ongoing anxieties of queer people and people of colour. With this though, hope is the theme of many of these songs and what can be done to get out of the darkness. An optimistic slant if you like with what can often be a sensitive subject especially in the black community.
The album kicks off strongly, firstly, with Orlando, a funky track that has a strong Prince-vibe to it, especially with Hynes vocals, and then Saint, which is more of a contemporary R&B-pop affair featuring crispy beats and hazy flourishes of sax, the latter of which is fast becoming a trademark of the Blood Orange sound.
After a couple of middling tracks, including Hope, which featured an unusual and unwanted appearance from Puff Daddy doing one of his trademark spoken word interludes, we hit the pre-album singles Jewelry and Charcoal Baby and with this some quality songwriting.
First-up was Jewelry, another contemporary R&B-styled track full of dreamy vocals and a delicate synth-driven arrangement. This track also featured a rap interlude in the middle of the song highlighting Hynes' ability to play around with song structure, while maintaining the element of surprise in his music.
Then came Charcoal Baby with its distinctive funky guitar intro. This for me, is one of Hynes' best ever songs and in many ways is the centrepiece statement of the whole album. It is also here where the name of the album comes from with the line “no one wants to be the odd one out at times, no one wants to be the negro swan.” This is classic R&B of the first degree and is as good as anything to come out of the R&B scene over the last few years.
After the great end to the first half of the record, the second half starts in a more average fashion in the form of Chewing Gum. In what is a throwaway kind of track, Hynes is relegated to a supporting role as featured guests A$AP Rocky and Project Pat take centre stage, while the recurring line “tell me what you want from me,” and constant airhorn makes this track quite forgettable.
Thankfully though, things pick up again on Holy Will, a soulful downtempo number which featured the standout vocal acrobats and incredible range of Ian Isiah, and Nappy Wonder, a slow building electro-soul track where Hynes shows off his prowess as a producer, something that often gets overlooked.
After the acoustic guitar driven, Georgia Anne Muldrow-featured Runnin’ provided a comedown following the experimental and at times crazy production wizardry of the previous track, the album then finally wound to a close with the 80s synth-pop sounding Out Of Your league featuring The Internet’s Steve Lacy, the pop-soul of Minetta Creek, and finally, Smoke with its laid-back acoustic soul vibe.
In conclusion, then, Dev Hynes has gone full on into the contemporary R&B sphere on Negro Swan resulting in quite a different record from Freetown Sound. Whereas the latter was anchored in the past, this record is very much anchored in the now, both in terms of production and style.
The results, however, are largely effective though with Hynes production nous and talent as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist the standout features. Yes, there was occasional filler which disrupted the flow of the album, but that was also the case on Freetown Sound, maybe it is an R&B thing? Either way, Negro Swan is a solid return from Hynes and proof yet again why he is one of the most in-demand producers in R&B and pop.
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Released: 24 Aug 2018