How Blood Orange Uses Chasms of Harmonic Ambiguity on “Negro Swan”

Blood Orange (Photo by Emmanuel Olunkwa.)

Blood Orange (Photo by Emmanuel Olunkwa.)
Photo by Emmanuel Olunkwa.

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When it comes to music, balancing invention and convention is like baking the perfect cake. Artists that deviate too far from an already established sound run the risk of becoming inaccessible to their core community, while those who recycle too much of their own songwriting material end up losing their audience’s interest, and risk sounding bland, derivative, or unoriginal.

Blood Orange, the multifaceted musical project of Dev Hynes, on the other hand, shows he’s still got the knife skills of a top-notch sonic chef with his latest release, Negro Swan. 

This record is inventive and explorative, and it furthers his artistic voice in new directions, yet he also manages to cleverly maintain those distinct compositional maneuvers and characteristics that fans have grown to adore. When comparing the devices used in “Jewelry” and “Charcoal Baby,” two of the first singles released off Negro Swan, we can hone in on the elements he uses to create his enticing hip-hop/neo-soul/indie-rock mélange.

Let’s listen to both tracks. Here’s “Charcoal Baby,” and below that is “Jewelry.”

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No clichés here

It isn’t uncommon for artists to gravitate toward specific chord progressions and harmonic turnarounds over the length of their career, like Stevie Wonder did with the “backdoor progression,” for example. Certain chords and the progressions linking them together can even stretch to define the sound of an entire genre, like pop-punk (I, V, VI–, IV), blues rock and folk (I, IV, V), or metal (I, I, ♭VI, ♭VII).

But contemporary pop harmony has evolved dramatically in the last decade. After what was a veritably resurrected Golden Age of complex harmony in pop, the gospel-infused R&B of the mid-late 1990s, mainstream music went through a long and dormant period of pretty formulaic chord structures and progressions for a while. Neo-soul, funk, and jazz influences in pop have since become the norm.

Hynes is, of course, no stranger to the contemporary. As a multi-instrumentalist producer who has worked closely with superstars like Solange, A$AP Rocky, and Carly Rae Jepsen, (and has interviewed Philip Glass at his gorgeous loft space), it’s clear that Hynes has a solid grasp on the communicative power of music that transcends genre clichés and borrows influences from wherever. “Catchy” doesn’t have to be lowered to “boring.”

And yet, Hynes’ music is delivered in such a beautifully simplistic, spatially loose form, that we could just as easily jive to it at the beach as we could sit down with a keyboard and dissect. Again, this goes back to his brilliant balancing of invention and convention. But there are some harmonic similarities that link “Jewelry” and “Charcoal Baby,” as well as other tracks on Negro Swan, which ultimately help tie the album together compositionally. So, let’s check them out!

Playing with my heart: relative major/minor harmony

Hynes makes heavy use of repeated notes between relative major and minor chords in each key. In other words, he slyly edits his chords to highlight the same notes that appear in chords of different tonalities. In the chart below, you can clearly see the overlaps in the root and third of one chord, as they become the third and fifth of a following chord, as well as the root of a minor chord functioning as an added sixth in the relative major of another. The fact that the added ninth of the minor chord functions as the major seventh of the relative major chord also adds to this lush and dreamy sound.

Often employed by jazz musicians, arrangers, and R&B and fusion groups, chords that contain a sixth or ninth (or both) add a smooth and illustrious color to the changes. In Hynes’ case, the chords share so many common tones that it can be difficult to hear the movement properly, even after repeated listens. In the chart below, the set of chords to the right feature the exact same tones, yet draw out a completely different feel.

music notation

Let’s start with “Charcoal Baby,” where this effect is especially prominent. The song offers an interesting set of chord changes that, for several reasons, is in an already ambiguous key center.

Firstly, Hynes has placed this entire song squarely between two tonic notes, relative to standard tuning — it’s about halfway between the minor-key centers of C♯ minor and D minor. For our analysis, we’ll observe these changes as if the tune were written and played in D minor.

Secondly, it’s not immediately clear that we can call this song definitively in D minor. Sure, if we analyze all the notes used, we’ll find the seven notes of D natural minor (D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C). But there’s so much harmonic rhythm emphasis on the B♭ and G minor chords, and the melody emphasizes the G minor tonality even more than the D minor tonality, that our ears don’t necessarily hear the weight of each D minor chord as a “resolution” or a real tonic landing. More ambiguity!

music notation

In the chorus, he cleverly adds a flattened 7 and 9 to the D minor chord to form D minor 9, which then features an F major seventh chord within the chord structure (F, A, C, E). This is a clever device to create that foggy major/minor ambiguity.

The feeling of this chord movement is uplifting and energetic, and is commonly used in funk and retro soul. Composers like Beethoven were famous for delaying the establishment of the tonal center, often dancing whimsically around the key center before making a definitive statement. And improvisers like John Coltrane often played entire solos or long, fast passages that avoid the root entirely. The above simply reinforces the flexibility of Hynes’ harmonic canvas.

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Compositional devices: more modulation!

Let’s take a closer look at that pitch modulation that helps solidify the ambiguity of these songs in the ear of the listener. In “Charcoal Baby,” heavily pitched guitars and synth patches contribute to the creation of this ethereal quality, here and throughout his body of work. Hynes is quoted here as saying:

“I did a lot of crazy shit to that guitar sound. I put two different vinyl effects on it, warping at different speeds, so the guitar is, like, completely out of tune on the whole song, but the bass kind of keeps it locked in.”

He’s likely referring to using an elastic audio effect such as Varispeed, which allows a producer to replicate the pitch-shifting effect of altering the playback speed on a vintage tape machine. This has been used by bands like Led Zeppelin to create swampy rock anthems like “When The Levee Breaks,” or create shimmery high-speed vocals on pieces like “The Song Remains the Same.”

The tracks themselves are actually re-pitched. When I sat down to begin this analysis, I had to fiddle with the fine-tuning control on my MIDI controller, dialing it into about +55 cents sharp of A440 to achieve a true analysis in D minor. I spoke about this same effect when I wrote about Billie Eilish’s “you should see me in a crown,” too.

Deeper ambiguity: parallel major/minor harmony

As an extension of the interplay between major and minor harmonies, we are left with a chasm of ambiguity as to the direction of the harmonic movement in each piece — it’s unpredictable. In addition to relative major and minor chords, Hynes employs a couple of parallel major and minor chords in “Jewelry.”

With three distinct, loosely related sections to the song, “Jewelry” already sits in an ambiguous musical territory that makes committing to one key center for analysis difficult enough already. To illustrate this particular harmonic ambiguity, we’ll focus on the intro and opening verse.

The deep, warbled synth tones that open “Jewelry” and continue on throughout the verse represent a classic modal interchangeswitching from one scale to another within a single song — and in this case it’s the most classic interchange, between parallel major and minor. In “Jewelry,” the bulk of these chords rests in the key of E♭ major, except for the opening chord itself — a B major seventh chord.

This chord, a ♭VI major seventh chord if analyzed around E♭ as the tonic, is a massively minor-key chord. It’s got the flat 3 (G♭) and flat 6 (B or, in this case, C♭) scale degrees, but keeps the tonic (E♭) and scale degree 5 (B♭) from E♭ major. Check it out.

music notation

From this opening chord blooms an A♭ major chord, or the IV major seventh chord in E♭. It shares that pivotal E♭ tonic note, but has two voices moving chromatically and the fourth moving by a whole step down. It’s a stark and brilliant rising line, and the way Hynes cycles through the I major seventh chord and back to the ♭VI major seventh secures the prominent ambiguity into the DNA of this song of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Final thoughts

One last thing that stood out to me in Negro Swan was Hynes’ use of spoken-word fragments curated by writer and transgender rights activist Janet Mock.

Her words are beautifully woven into the dense fabric of Hynes’ harmonic world, accented in a way that can only be described as elegant. Not only is this a powerful tool in storytelling, but it also spotlights growth in the diversity of black Western music, allowing space to be made for the raw sensitivity at many artists’ core, even though that core has always been there.

Black music in the West has been such a powerful tool for advocating progressive, positive change in the past 100 years. And even though pop music has come a long way, the media still often seems hell-bent on defining “urban” expression in gross generalizations, limiting what coverage it does receive to depictions of violence and abuse. In quiet, smooth protest, Hynes’ exploration of “black joy” (as he says), queerness, and acceptance in the form of community is bold, courageous, and beautiful.

Don’t stop here!

Keep learning about theory and harmony, composing and arranging, songwriting, and more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses. Subscribe for access to all, including The Creative Power of Advanced HarmonyOrchestration for Stringsand our exciting new course with Grammy-winning pianist and producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

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