Blood Orange - Negro Swan (2LP)
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The fourth Blood Orange album begins with a temperate rolling groove suited perfectly for Dev Hynes' gentle falsetto. Just as the song starts to resemble something akin to Stevie Wonder's "Power Flower" as an imagined Smokey Robinson collaboration, its refrain of "First kiss was the floor," delivered with deceptively wistful style, tugs the attentive listener into Hynes' marginalized and antagonized existence as a black male with characteristics perceived as non-masculine. A more severe attack is referenced later in "Dagenham Dream." The song's gauzy and isolated qualities are disrupted with sounds of passing sirens as Hynes recalls being hospitalized, concealing himself in response, and achieving blissful escape on his skateboard. These are the most graphic moments on Negro Swan, an album that otherwise is less autobiographical, with feelings of instability, comfort, optimism, self-fulfillment, and pride articulated from track to track. Negro Swan sonically is as fluid as it is fragmented, synthesizing and bounding between bedsit post-punk, desolate dream pop, chillwave-coated quiet storm, and low-profile hip-hop soul. Via a Clark Sisters interpolation featuring piercing praise from Ian Isiah, it even dips into gospel (if rendered with Twinkie's organ replaced with some decidedly less fervent synthesizer). Though tracks change direction and are stylistically variable -- even the one-minute interlude "Vulture Baby" evokes tranquil Blackbyrds and ghostly Pink Floyd -- the sequencing is well-paced, jarring only when the moody Project Pat and A$AP Rocky collaboration "Chewing Gum" purposefully grinds to a halt to make way for the church scene. Transitions elsewhere are eased by portions of a discussion with author and trans advocate Janet Mock, who provides words of inspiration and hope. This qualifies as Hynes' most inward work, but it's a product of considerable interaction, whether the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist is handing off ideas to Diddy on the Connected-era Foreign Exchange-like "Hope," trading primary instruments with the Internet's Steve Lacy on the swirling "Out of Your League," or leaving enough room on each track for up to to four additional voices, including Kelsey Lu, Amandla Stenberg, and Adam Bainbridge. The most touching matchup occurs on "Runnin'." Georgia Anne Muldrow's support reaches beyond creative to emotional, alleviating Hynes' anxiety and loneliness with lines like "You and your soul are never not one" and "Just hold onto your mighty way of bein'." As Muldrow finishes with a chuckle, it's not hard to picture Hynes falling into her arms.