Blood Orange

Negro Swan

Domino

Aug 27, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


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What exactly is wrong with Devonté Hynes? On paper, he appears to have all the makings of a pop genius. He is a musical chameleon, comfortable working with pop stars, rock bands, and modern classical composers. His music successfully tackles profound topics, from mental health to racial inequality. And his music videos are artful and visually stunning. But somehow, seemingly against the odds, his work as Blood Orange has never quite come together.

On 2016's Freetown Sound, Hynes created a beautiful melting pot of soul, jazz, and New Wave, but the songwriting often felt directionless and unsubstantial. It certainly didn't help that many of Hynes' best songs, such as the shimmering "Losing You" for Solange, were written with other artists. Negro Swan looked like it might correct this, judging by a beautiful lead single, but old problems remain on this record, which promises much but feels strangely unsatisfying.

While Blood Orange's last record took on heavy topics-namely the state of race relations in Americathis new album looks inwards to personal development. Transgender rights activist Janet Mock appears prominently throughout as a motivating voice and a central theme of hope appears across these songs. Sonically, Hynes continues to elegantly blend his influences. For example, "Nappy Wonder" is a piece of minimalist funk-rock and "Chewing Gum" is a heavenly-peaceful take on trap.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and Hynes' songwriting can still feel rough and unstructuredit doesn't seem like just a rhetorical flourish that he calls these songs "pieces." His vocals also continue to have a disappointingly boyish tone and although he has improved at writing songs which complement his voice, the album's weakest moments are still when Hynes' vocals are put front and center, such as with the odd emo-styled "Take Your Time." Towards the back-end of the album, tracks are still liable to drift into the background and for all the talk of self-expression on Negro Swan, many of its songs are surprisingly conservative musically. As with Freetown Sound, the atmosphere may be stirring, but individual moments can be unmemorable.

That said, Negro Swan does have more highlights than its predecessors. Lead single "Charcoal Baby" and "Orlando" are gorgeous examples of synth-soul, while "Hope" with guest vocalist Tei Shi sounds like FKA twigs doing traditional R&B. These moments are not significantly different in sound to the rest of Negro Swan but they feel more fully developed than the album's other tracks.

By the end of this record, it is very easy to be left in a peculiar position of being effusive about the vision and principles behind it, while having misgivings about its execution. The ambition of Negro Swan calls to mind the vignette style of Frank Ocean's Endless and the conceptual vision of Solange's A Seat at the Table, but such comparisons only reveal how much sharper Hynes' writing needs to be. If we could hear the music inside his head; maybe it would make good on the promise of this album. For now, Blood Orange remains an artist who flirts with greatness but frustratingly continues to fall short. (www.bloodorange.net)

Author rating: 7/10

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Maria
August 30th 2018
4:03pm

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Ethan
September 6th 2018
12:25am

Whatever. Devonté Hynes’s music is still awesome and great to enjoy. I ‘ve replayed his songs thousand times hotmail. Absolutely my cup of tea.