Negro Swan blends elements of R&B, psychedelic rock, hip-hop and lo-fi pop creating a scattered yet beautiful listen that stands strong among Hynes’ discography..
Devonté Hynes has always been a master of breaking musical boundaries. On Negro Swan, Hynes explores the complicated experience of being an outsider in the modern world. He perfectly captures the anxiety and frustration that accompanies being a marginalized person during a toxic and tension-filled political and cultural climate. Negro Swan contains so many different aesthetics and sounds it may become overwhelming. The album plays more like a mixtape filled with genre-blending, experimentation and conversation fragments. However, Hynes’s talents as a vocalist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist are undeniable. He's able to take numerous ideas and create an experience that’s deeply immersive and relevant.
The opening track “Orlando” contains plenty of street sound samples and a laid-back shuffle beat. The production is rich in texture and centers around the violence Hynes experienced during his childhood. “First kiss was the floor” he croons during the refrain. A chilling reflection of being bullied and beaten. Like many of the tracks on Negro Swan, no idea or sound stays forever. The song suddenly transitions into a guitar vamp where writer and transgender activist Janet Mock discusses the concept of marginalized people never being allowed to excel or succeed fully. Mock appears on five of the sixteen tracks present on Negro Swan, and her commentary is both wise and thought-provoking.
The fourth track on the album “Hope” is one of the few songs on the album that has an optimistic point of view. The song features Colombian-Canadian singer Tei Shi and a surprisingly vulnerable and reflective Puff Daddy. “Jewelry” begins with Janet Mock discussing the image of feeling unwelcome yet persevering through it. “We were not ever welcomed in; we were not invited. Yet we walk in, and we show all the way up.” The song is a moment of pride and confidence. “Jewelry” celebrates the idea of accepting one’s identity and embracing it. “Charcoal Baby” boasts an up-tempo and catchy guitar-lead melody. The song title references blackface performers during the 19th-century who used charcoal to darken their faces. The track revolves around never wanting to be the outsider. Hynes views himself as someone who can appear as both repulsive and beautiful, a theme that’s central to Negro Swan’s core.
“Chewing Gum” the album’s ninth track features a moody 80’s pop groove and eerie snares. Hynes stated the song was an insane metaphor for the sense of exhaustion that comes with constant outrage. The song takes an interesting turn when A$AP Rocky delivers a verse that mainly centers around lust and sex. The song enters a third and final part where Project Pat gives us a rugged and woozy outro. “Chewing Gum” is what makes Negro Swan so brilliant but also confusing. The abstract and disjointed ideas on “Chewing Gum” and throughout the entirety of the album may frustrate the average listener. Those who can respect the various aesthetic will not be bothered by the album's constant shifts in sound. “Dagenham Dream” is a gloomy and heartbreaking track that details Hynes’ earliest memories of growing up in the rough East London neighborhood of Dagenham. It is without a doubt the album’s emotional apex and most depressing listen. Hyne’s reflective lyrics detail a great deal of pain and trauma not only through physical violence but having to act like everyone else to fit in. The song perfectly transitions into Janet Mock discussing her struggles of wanting to belong while simultaneously being her true self.
The thirteenth track “Runnin” features singer Georgia Anne Muldrow. Her performance is remarkably dominant and impressive. Hynes’ verse touches on loneliness and loss whereas Muldrow’s counters this as she sings of hope and recovery. Hynes explained that when he initially began to write “Runnin’,” he was stuck in a dark place. It was Muldrow’s contributions that gave the song a new meaning. The closing track “Smoke” also takes on a more optimistic tone. “Smoke” centers around the idea of stepping out of the darkness and into the light. “The sun comes in/My heart fulfills within.” sings Hynes during the refrain. The song is stripped-back and simple as it only features Hynes’s vocals and acoustic guitar. Despite all the pain that Hynes expresses in several of the tracks throughout Negro Swan, “Smoke” communicates that we can all overcome adversity.
Cryptic and elusive, Negro Swan shatters genre and structural boundaries. The sound is never decisive. The songs fluctuate from sounding perfectly orchestrated to experimental and spontaneous. However, that is what makes Devonté Hynes an admirable and defiant musician. It’s clear that on Negro Swan he planned to accomplish whatever he desired. Simultaneously, he’s able to maintain his status as an open-minded collaborator who chooses togetherness over alienation. During his career, Hynes has collaborated with a diverse list of artists including Skepta, Solange, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Negro Swan proves he's still willing to take risks and work with whoever he chooses to. Just like on 2013's Cupid and 2016's Freetown Sound, Hynes combines strong storytelling with compelling features and impactful messages. Negro Swan paints a vivid and sorrow image of the black experience. At the same time, it communicates to listeners that community can triumph over anything, even in the midst of significant uncertainty.