BY MIN CHEN
Blood Orange’s 2018 track “Jewelry” opens with a spoken word piece by trans activist Janet Mock, who, against a languid saxophone line, matter-of-factedly describes her favorite kind of images. They are, she says, “the ones where someone who isn’t supposed to be there” manages to “show all the way up.” She continues,
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?
It’s a raised fist for outsiders, a message of inclusivity that vibrates throughout the rest of its parent album. Unflinchingly, Negro Swan gazes deeply and honestly into the angst and anxieties that plague the black, queer, and trans communities, excavating indelible trauma but also, hope. “No one wants to be the odd one out at times / No one wants to be the negro swan,” goes “Charcoal Baby,” before “Smoke,” the record’s final track, offers the reassured refrain, “The sun comes in, my heart fulfills within.”
That moment of all-encompassing comfort, Devonté Hynes will admit, is intentional and well-intentioned. “My thing is, I don’t want to exclude anyone,” he said in 2018 of the album. “I never want someone to feel like it’s not for them, or they don’t understand it. I want them to get whatever it is they can get from it. I’ve felt like I’ve done that my whole life… Even things that I am excluded from, I’ve been like, ‘Fuck it.’ And just taken what I can from it.”
Negro Swan, then, is not just simply a collection of soul numbers, but a space and a place, Hynes insists, where “everyone’s welcome.” It begins on its sleeve, featuring model Kai The Black Angel (who also shows up in the video for “Jewelry”) perched on a car window sill, white feathered wings adorning his shoulders. He turns one eye to face the camera. Photographed by Hynes’ partner and artist Ana Kraš, it’s a picture of stillness and composure, of an otherworldly creature showing up and settling in.
The album’s cover is no fluke. From the sleeve of 2011’s Cupid Deluxe through to 2016’s Freetown Sound, Hynes has presented images in which individuals make themselves visible by being not the least, but the most. They don’t conform or fit; they may not even have been invited, but here they are. And we see them.
Coastal Grooves (2011)
A habitué of New York City’s Times Square in the late ‘80s, photographer Brian Lantelme spent nights documented the trans and drag scene at Sally’s II, a nightclub located in the Carter Hotel (notably where scenes of documentary Paris Is Burning were filmed), in innumerable black-and-white portraits equally poignant and piquant. As Terre Thaemlitz, a resident DJ at the club, remembered, “It was a multigenerational transgender scene impacted by poverty, sex work, and the struggle for access to hormones and other health care without insurance.” Consequently, the photog’s pictures captured a glamour poised between the dramatic and the desperate, its artifice illuminated. For Coastal Grooves, Hynes borrowed one of Lantelme’s images of Exotica, a drag queen theatrically draping herself on a wall outside Sally’s in 1996. The version of the Exotica photograph most widely circulated sees her playing coy and forlorn; but on the cover of Blood Orange’s debut is an alternate shot where her entire visage seems looser and brighter, more open. She loses the pose, but her self-possession remains.
Cupid Deluxe (2013)
Hynes’ love affair with NYC resumes here. Making the move from Brooklyn to Manhattan, he felt, “It was the first time maybe in my life where I first felt like I had a home.” Hence Cupid’s intimations of “Soho nights” and the “Bowery light” (on “It Is What It Is”), its luscious after-hours grooves, and its sleeve bearing one of Bill Butterworth’s images. Like Lantelme, the photographer made himself comfortable in Times Square in the 1980s to record its night and street life. While capturing the neighborhood pre-tourism, his gritty images of hip hop crews and ladies of the night distill the Deuce’s energy and subversion. It’s raw and seductive in the same way “Time Will Tell” unwaveringly cajoles, “Come into my bedroom.”
Freetown Sound (2016)
Created in the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown, Hynes’ third album was dedicated, he wrote, to those “not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.” In soft-focus funk and melodies, the album considers black history, identity, and sexuality, offering no easy answers, but urging contemplation. “I’m just trying to go through these things,” said Hynes. But it’s enough that Freetown Sound exists for its role in representation, for its nuanced rendering of blackness and queerness—plus its attendant struggles, anxieties, and joy—in a pop cultural landscape where there is often none. “All you ever wanted was a chance for yourself / To represent a thing that we have started to build,” goes “Chance.”
It’s why the record’s sleeve, comprising Deana Lawson’s 2009 work “Binky & Tony Forever,” matters. In it, the titular Binky and Tony embrace by a bed in the photographer’s Bed-Stuy apartment—a portrait of unapologetic love and solace. It’s a tender spot in a social and political climate roiled by inequity and oppression, a picture in which listeners may look and find themselves. Said Lawson, “I felt like I needed to make an image that was about embracing and intimacy and support, physically, between young people, particularly young black people.” Or as poet Ashlee Haze recites on “By Ourselves”: “There are a million black girls just waiting / To see someone who looks like them.”