Negro Swan - Blood Orange Analysis
A good friend of mine showed me this album in 2018 when it came out, and I remember thinking how aggressive and peculiar the title was.
Now, nearly two years later, I am looking at this album through a much different lense. I always knew this album was special, but it took recent conversations about racism in the media to make me genuinely curious about it.
I want to understand the meaning behind the title as well as the meaning behind the lyrics within it.
In his novel Black Swan Lake: Life of a Wetland, Australian scholar Rod Giblett examines the history of this bird.
According to him, black swans have always been treasured by indigenous communities for their exotic, unlikely beauty. On the other hand, European colonizers often viewed the birds as evil, ugly and unwanted, simply due to their color. Sound familiar?
This is musical polymath Devonté Hynes’s fourth album as Blood Orange. This work explores the complications and wonders of being treated as an ugly beauty.
It’s about black depression. He addresses his past struggles as a young black man in the UK, while highlighting the feelings and insecurities of marginalized communities.
Pitchfork describes this album as “fusing together alt-pop, progressive R&B, indie hip-hop, downtempo rock, and spacey chillwave into a minimalist emulsion.”
I love that it cannot be put into a single genre or box. I think that says a lot on its own.
The opening track “Orlando” calls attention to the unsettling time we are in regarding global culture and politics.
A dancehall-style alarm goes off as if to alert the listener of an impending danger (alarms are a recurring motif on the album), as he sings:
“First kiss was the floor.”
It’s a reflection about being bullied as a child on a school bus. At the end of the track, that floor kiss is turned into an act of devotion. Author and trans activist Janet Mock speaks of getting a sense of empowerment out of oppression.
“Live for the floor
You know, it's an insult we often put onto a lot of folk is, like
Oh, you're doing too much
So like, a couple years ago I was like
You know what, my resolution, my eternal resolution will be to do too much
Yes, I love it”
Mock is touching on the value of “doing too much” in a culture that doesn’t allow marginalized people to truly excel at anything. She expands on this thought in “Jewelry,” kicking off the track with another spoken word commentary:
“So, like, my favorite images
Are the ones where...
Someone who isn't supposed to be there
Who's like in a space, a space where
We were not ever welcomed in or we were not invited
Yet we walk in and we show all the way up
People try to, put us down by saying
"She's doing the most" or "he's way too much"
But, like, why would we want to do the least?”
All of Mock’s interludes confirm a central theme of the album: how both queers and people of color manage trauma in a racist, heteronormative culture.
In the track “Running,” Blood Orange explains how he’s
“Runnin' in circles
Looking for something to hold on
Runnin' in circles
Knowing there's nowhere to go
And it's harder to be on your own (so hard)”
But Georgia Anne Muldrow interludes to assure him that he’s going to be okay and that everyone goes through it.
Then, we hear Janet Mock again say “live for the floor.”
She goes on:
“So, you were, like, talking about this idea of being called upon
And for some reason the first thing I heard was, like
This faint, irritating, incessant buzzer
And I think I heard it three times in my life
The first was, was within myself
Um, to stop pretending
To stop performing in ways that people wanted me to
To actually show up for myself
And to be myself”
Blood Orange does not identify as gay or straight. He revolts against the idea of “macho” and male power in an effort to diversify stylistic representations of black masculinity.
Negro Swan blurs boundries between insider and outsider, black and white, straight and gay, trans and cis.
This approach to identity struggles around sexual fluidity and anti-racism is similar to that of Tyler the Creator, Babyface, and many others. Blood Orange has been releasing music for 9 years now and his influence has clearly had a lasting impact.
There is a constant desire to be loved and understood on this album.
On “Charcoal Baby, Blood Orange sings:
“No one wants to be the odd one out at times
No one wants to be the negro swan
Can you break sometimes?”
Blood Orange uses the word “Negro” to point out the history of racial oppression. Similarly, the phrase “Charcoal Baby” is in reference to 19th-century blackface performers who used burnt charcoal to darken their faces for white audiences.
Listeners feel the push pull of wanting to be accepted by another group or the world at large, while also wanting to showcase what makes them different and special.
“Hope” explores learning how to feel worthy of love. It’s actually a collaboration with P-Diddy which is oddly a bit off-brand, but Blood Orange seems to inspire collaborators to channel the best version of themselves.
That concept is made clear right away from the album cover. A black man is propped on a car windowpane, an image that society might view as ugly, however he is wearing a studded dorag, eyeshadow and beautiful white wings on his back.
“You know, what is it going to take for me not to be afraid
To be loved the way, like, I really wanna be loved?”
“You give me that hope that, um
Maybe one day I'll get over my fears and I'll receive”
For a project focused on anxiety and fragility that asks the question, “Can you break sometimes?” the album closes on a blissful note that dreams of wholeness.
“The sun comes in
My heart fulfills within”
The world could use more artists like Blood Orange, and everyone could benefit from taking his words to heart - now more than ever.