Hynes has created an intricate collage of samples and sounds taken from a deep introspection. The fragmented nature of the album shows us a slightly different side to the multi-instrumentalist. He etches elements of his own hopes, anxieties and mental state into a stream of consciousness that meanders both smoothly and abruptly throughout.
We are not met with the punchy synths and funky beats of previous works such as Love Ya or Best To You – instead Hynes progressively builds many of the tracks using intricate layers. Orlando eases us into the album gently; echoed noises, as if a sax is being played in a street nearby as well as alarms or the buzz of New York traffic can be heard as Hynes begins his venture. A funky guitar lick is brought in as his layered vocals become more intense, joined by a sliding nu-jazz chord – giving the listener a hint as to the array of sounds he has at his disposal.
Hynes’ ability to cherry-pick sounds so effectively is also evident in the features. In Saint, Hynes brings together vocals from multiple recording sessions with the likes of Ava Raiin and Adam Bainbridge. In an interview with Pitchfork, he explains that each of these artists recorded those vocals in completely different places in New York – he simply collected them and spliced them together. In Chewing Gum, Hynes’ haunting falsetto is combined with a heavy echoed snare beat, which, halfway welcomes A$AP Rocky who, by contrast, raps about exotic sex. It nevertheless works. One can’t help viewing the album as a beautiful improvisation by Hynes – moving each track in a way that he feels – adding layers of instruments and vocals from an extensive catalogue as he sees fit. He is even able to show Diddy in a vulnerable and humanized light in Hope where he alternates with the angelic vocals of Tei Shi and speaks over a fluttering grand piano at the end. Puff asks: ‘What is it going to take for me not be afraid // To be loved the way, like, I really wanna be loved? This delicate portrayal by Diddy would not fit anywhere else. Despite the broad collection of moods, from downtempo R&B to progressive chill wave – Hynes is able to combine these splinters into a most beautiful whole.
In previous projects, Hynes’ music has taken an autobiographical route. In Augustine from Freetown Sound, for example, he focuses on his youth – moving to New York from London and his parents’ experiences moving from Sierra Leone and Guyana. Hynes now takes this subject matter and places it within a beautifully muddled context. The refrain of Orlando immediately leaps back to an experience of being bullied at school – ‘First kiss was the floor.’ Instead of that hard hitting sucker punch drum in Augustine, dreamy falsetto and soft synths back the track, adding to the mismatched structure of the project. Further memories are brought to the surface in Dagenham Dream. This time, a drowned out, moody electric guitar is brought in – giving an 80s alt rock ambience to the track as Hynes recalls the violence; ‘Broken teeth and bloody nose but least it snowed.’
Hynes has also explored the deeply political in his music – highlighting sexual and racial anxieties in tracks like But You where he is torn between just ‘being himself’ and actively trying not to scare a white girl walking along the street. Negro Swan builds on these foundations as Hynes brings us strong messages of solidarity against racism and heteronormative ideas in the form of his own scattered conscience. The black swan is characterised as something beautiful, yet out of place – Hynes wants us to embrace these differences, with the Black Angel on the cover doing exactly that. Janet Mock provides grounding interjections into the album at several points. Before rising to become a prominent trans activist, and writer, Mock lived a tumultuous life – constantly pressured to fill that ‘space’ that seemed so difficult to take a hold of. Even when surgery provided her with a physical solution – she made it clear that this was nowhere near the end of most trans womens’ struggle. In a Guardian interview, she admits her great fortune of having the ‘pretty privilege’ allowing her to choose whether to disclose if she was trans.
In Jewellery, a snippet from a recorded conversation with Hynes encapsulates her strong message to those without this privilege – to ‘show all the way up’ even if they are ‘not ever welcomed in’. The video that accompanies this track embodies this idea of pride and confidence in a world that is, in many ways, restrictive of these freedoms. Hyne’s lyrics ‘Shine hit your eyes // Black kiss the ring // Ruby ebony sides’ evoke this idea of shining through these obstacles – whether it be racism or heteronormative culture. The disjointed elements of the song are met with four different scenes, including Mock powerfully striding down a street and the Black Angel from the album cover leaning out of a slow moving sports car. Both scenes evoke beauty and grace in quite different lights and highlight the fragmented nature of the track, from the conversation with Mock to Hynes’ eerie, drawn out vocals and contrasting spoken word rap.
Hynes has called upon a plethora of contrasting songs, samples, raps, and even conversations in this project to create something that seems improvised – yet is wholly intentional. The constantly shifting structure of each track – from eerie synths and layered vocals to alt-rock riffs and gospel-like choruses combines with the pressing emotions expressed in his lyrics. This album is dark and full of modern anxieties, many of which apply to Hynes’ personally, yet he presents these themes in a tranquil, almost deceiving light making the project so beautifully haunting.
Favourite Track: Hope