Blood Orange may not be looking to change the world, but his music strives to change conversations surrounding mental health and masculinity. The British singer-songwriter’s latest studio album, Negro Swan, was an underrated release in Aug. 2018 and an ode to black depressives with an anxious tale of the marginalized black life and the strife that lies within it.
Enclosed in a 49-minute project, the playlist screams from its belly with angst, clocked in soft voices and live instrumentals. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/No one wants to be the negro swan,” Blood Orange cries on “Charcoal Baby,” a track positioned toward the album’s center and the first single released in promotion of the new LP.
His single “Hope” is a reluctant battle with love and expectations mastered by Diddy and Tei Shi. A first for the music mogul, Orange captures the Bad Boy producer in a rare mood — vulnerable.
Negro Swan listens as an organized free-flowing thought that hinges on vulnerability, bringing you to the pits of adolescence where you once navigated your position in the world. Blood Orange — also known as Dev Hynes — gives raw expression and a broadening definition of the black man. Masculine and fluid, the long play is not just for queers or people of color; it’s for anyone who needs to feel comfortable.
Speaking to VIBE, Blood Orange opens up about expanding the understanding of a man and masculinity and the creative process behind Negro Swan. —
VIBE: First I want to congratulate you on your album Negro Swan. I want to start with one of your songs, “Charcoal Baby.” You played it a year ago before you released it at The Meadows.
Blood Orange: Yeah, I did.
What made you decide to wait almost a year before releasing it?
For me, especially those songs, I felt like the context of the album and everything around it would serve it better. I felt that the content of the album would help to serve it with the artwork and the video of the song. I felt it would make more sense that way.
In the video, you open with the definition of family, so what does family mean to you?
To me, it’s definitely not a case of blood, it’s whatever you choose. That is my interpretation.
Do you think that your core values come from your chosen family, or what has been instilled in you since you were a child?
I would say a mixture of both. I feel like I was given some very good models as a child that are definitely ingrained in me. But you know experiencing life also led me to people that have helped to expand those core beliefs. I am very much informed by people whom I trust.
I really liked your visuals for “Jewelry” and that Janet Mock was in it, and the mosh pit style of all of the black masculine-presenting people. I really loved that you had on this rainbow belt in the middle of all of this.
(Laughing) The belt.
I wanted to know what was your inspiration for the video? How did Janet Mock being in the video come about and then the mosh pit of course?
The song to me is the center of the album. Personally, I feel like every aspect of the album is well-represented in that song. It was important for me to have that put out visually. Out of all the songs on the album, that’s the one that moves about more. I thought it would be good if the video was more of a visual rather than a music video, so it could ground the music and make it easier to understand.
You have one image for each section that’s somewhat strong. Each of the sections, I tried to visualize each as its own image. It’s interesting because I did not have an album cover at that point, and my label was asking me because time was running out, and I told them no matter what happens, the album cover will come from that video. I always knew that video, to me, summed up the album, so I didn’t know what it was going be, but I was just going to take tons of photos while shooting and directing, and I knew that there would be an image for it from the album.
The “Chewing Gum” video with A$AP Rocky — I think it is very interesting because both of you have very different styles and ways you do music and present yourselves. What was it like working with A$AP Rocky being that the dichotomy between you two is so different?
It was good. One thing that is interesting about our video is that I actually shot it before the song was finished. I shot that video nearly two years ago, which is kind of crazy? That happens a lot with different videos that came out, I actually did years before. I am always working on these things at the same time, and then they kind of melt together, but that one was basically a couple of nights.
I was staying at his house at that period and working on music. Worked on the song, had started a verse on it, and I was still trying to work on imagery with the album. Then, I had this vision with us two that I felt would, in a way… I’m always just working out things. The scene that is a group of us in “Jewelry” kind of mobbing is the same tone as what I was working on in the “Chewing Gum” video. It’s hard for me to use words because I use visuals. I don’t know delicate masculinity.
I think overall, the imagery that you have created does a really good job at capturing a masculine presence in a very delicate way. You do very well at providing different layers to black men.
That’s cool, yeah that’s sick, that’s all I’m trying to do. So, that’s what that video is. I just felt like it was a place that we could meet, Rocky and I. I was trying to create this world where it worked.
What is your favorite video that you created?
There are a lot. I think “Jewelry” and “Saint.” It captures something. I think “Jewelry” captures the mood of the album and “Saint” captures, I don’t want to say “behind-the-scenes,” but it captures the energy of when I am making stuff because that is actually my studio in the video.
Yeah, nothing is staged in that. I had my friends be there and we planned all the shots but that is my studio that is the view. That’s it in Chinatown (NYC). Nothing was moved. I didn’t move keyboards. That is literally it. To me, that was kind of a special one because it had that energy. So that (“Saint”) and “Jewelry.”
Recently, I saw on your Instagram that you worked with Mariah Carey on her Caution album. That must have been a very interesting moment?
Yeah, that’s wild. We worked on that song before Negro Swan came out actually. We really connected, I don’t need to say, but she is real. Her music knowledge is so crazy, and I mean it’s wild, not just in terms of what she knows discography-wise, but everything. Just her actual music intellect. It was just an insane learning experience. I still can’t quite believe it happened actually.
That’s amazing, because she is considered a music legend and a vocal legend, so being able to work with her must be really affirming in the fact that you are a talented artist and people are interested in hearing you.
I guess I should start looking at it like that. It’s still really hard for me to take stuff like that in.
Why do you say that?
I don’t know. I just still feel really personal. I still make stuff the same way I made it when I was, like, 14. Everything is still pretty much the same. I mean, some techniques have changed and I keep to myself quite a bit. I haven’t read a review in like nine years.
I’ve seen that you identify as being fluid, and I wanted to know how your fluidity transfers to your music?
I think it transfers in the way that is kind of interesting. I never really feel like I am working on music. It’s always like I am just doing things and living life and while I do that I work on music. So everything in my life goes into my music.
Because of that, it’s more journalistic or just driving into. It’s like this thing that is a constant that is happening, so I think because of that, and because it is so personal, and because it is really just me and what is on my mind, I don’t really write songs. But especially, like, I can honestly say the entirety of Blood Orange stuff, there have maybe been three times I have written a song. As in, I sat down and wrote a song from start to finish. It’s more like a bunch of tapestries or pieces that I am always working on at the same time and weaving in and out of, which is why sometimes lyrics repeat and melodies repeat.
I finish all the songs at the same time and then the album is done. So everything that is going on in my life and how I am feeling. I feel in my life the freer and easier making music is. It’s essentially like fluidity and my sexual preference is like a part. It’s as important as me singing about my childhood and my day-to-day. It kind of goes right inside.
So being that you identify as fluid, do you also consider yourself to be masculine?
I don’t know. It may sound kind of crazy, but I kind of leave that stuff up to whoever wants to think about it. I don’t think about it, because to me I am just being me. I don’t ever really think about those tags or things. For example, I play a crazy amounts of sports — my whole life, I always have. I guess in the world that has set up the idea of “boys play sports” that can be seen as masculine, but because I don’t really view the world that way I don’t know if it’s masculine.
You have spoken out about being harassed for being fluid, how do you find serenity in yourself when hate comes your way?
I’ve learned to really take it as something has been triggered inside the person that is giving the hate. I have learned to understand that more. Rather than it being about me, it’s about the person who is projecting, which is obviously an easier said practice than it is done. I learned to go there and to still keep myself and think of myself and stay somewhat positive. I mean, it is tough but I’ve had to work on that, and I am still working on that, really.
Do you think you openness about being fluid has affected your perspective of being a black person in the music industry?
I don’t know, I don’t think about this. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but I just really believe in everyone being themselves and everyone being themselves without judgment, which I feel is really important.
Especially in a world nowadays where it seems like nobody is allowed to make mistakes- which is strange because literally, no one is perfect — and I think this pressure will make people not be themselves. It’s kind of counterintuitive, I find that a little sad. So, I don’t know.
I am turning 33 next month, and I think about my life, and having to work things out by myself, and the place that it took me, and the places I don’t understand, and maybe the mistakes I have made. It just kind of… I feel like it’s a journey I would never, ever want to replace, because it has made me who I am, and made me sure of who I am without feeling any shame within that. I feel like it’s a positive thing.
I tried to say it a couple of times when people would ask me about the album, and I would try and say I have a view of what I think this album is about and the title can be taken anyway people want. But the most important thing for me is that no one feels like they can’t reflect on that. I want everyone to be able to listen to it and take something from it, and not feel that it is not for them. It may be somewhat specific because it’s my point of view making it, and I know what I was thinking about, but I want every single person who wants to take something from it to be able to take something from it, regardless if that is queer, non-binary, or cis or anything. I want people to feel comfortable in being those things.
How do you think you got to the point of you being so comfortable within yourself?
Honestly, from going to a very dark place. I’ve gone to some very dark places in the last few years, and I think, again, that the only way out is when you are just left with yourself. It’s almost like going to the end of extreme pessimism and nihilism, and the outcome is that of “I don’t know a negative optimist.” Something like that.
If for some reason there was a time machine and you could give young Dev advice, what would you tell yourself?
Probably just to keep going. I mean, I say it to myself now, so I would have probably said it back then too. Just keep doing you. All that matters in life is yourself and family and people you love, and trying to make others and yourself happy and living life. That’s kind of all I care about.
READ MORE: Divine Intervention: Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes Shows What It Really Means To Be Young, Gifted & Black On ‘Freetown Sound’