Someone asked Dev Hynes on Instagram why the vinyl release of Negro Swan was delayed so much. He answered: “Because I keep editing the record to make it perfect for you listeners and vinyl takes longer to be pressed and shipped, so it’s either you don’t get anything til October, or you can enjoy this music in two weeks and wait longer for vinyl :)”. Patience is a virtue an’ that. It seems an age since 2016’s Freetown Sound, a regular feature of AOTY lists. Since then, teasers – all analogue film and almost visceral detuned synths – have been posted and songs debuted, on television or as singles. Hynes’ answer also speaks to his perfectionism, to his willingness to spend hours, days, messing with a sub-oscillator. Fortunately, these whims are kept in check and “you listeners” are always kept in mind.
Woven through are snippets of conversations Hynes had with activist and author Janet Mock, who offers up a number of calls to “fully show up” rather than “shrink yourself”. These are an integral part of the dense textures Hynes crafts, in which sirens also lurk alongside the buzz and whir of New York. The Blood Orange sound is one which is rooted in ’80s R&B, but one which is unsurprisingly, given that he first made a name for himself in a dance-punk trio and then as Lightspeed Champion, invariably multi-faceted and fluid. All roads lead to Prince.
Opener ‘Orlando’ is about being sucker-punched on the bus home from a school by kids who probably played football ‘prison rules’, and there are strands of autobiography – at one point he laments, “All I know was taught to me young”. But it has a much wider scope. Negro Swan is, among other things, a look at ‘Black depression’, and indeed much of the album leans towards the plaintive, but it’s handled obliquely and sensitively. In spite of this, or even in view of this, there’s a persistent thread of hope, an acknowledgement of the futility of luxuriating in it all.
Negro Swan is a portrait of a truly individual artist, and among all its big-league collabs (Georgia Anne Muldrow, Steve Lacy, ASAP Rocky &c), Hynes holds his own. Note ‘Take Your Time’’s hushed, layered vocals, ‘Saint’’s swoon-worthy (Ahh!) hook at 2:22 or ‘Minetta Creek’’s intricacies. And not all those collabs work out – on ‘Hope’, Puff Daddy/(P.) Diddy/ Puffy/ ((B.)rother) Love’s cameo is unconvincing, his monologue coming off as unfeigned but, it’s fair to say, a bit cringe.
‘Holy Will’ is a strong contender for worst song on the record, completely lacking in dynamism when put next to the rollicking vitality of ‘Orlando’ or ‘Charcoal Baby’. ‘Dagenham Dream’, on which atmospheric, echoing vocals compete with swirling major 7ths, is a contender for best. Closer ‘Smoke’ is more subdued, acoustic, down-tempo, though with that swaggering-but-not-overly-bolshie vibe: “Pretty, I’m pretty as fuck”. On Negro Swan, Hynes emphatically shows up.