Evolution is a tenuous metaphor for artistic growth, but it’s a good one for describing the kinds of progress that occur under pressure, when a certain natural selection takes place between the useful and the irrelevant. This kind of growth is thrilling to watch, not only because those developments are so terrifyingly high-wire, but because they can reveal so much.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, the debut solo album by Sophie Xeon, the Los Angeles–based singer, songwriter, and producer who records under the starkly capitalized mononym SOPHIE, shows the artist experiencing this kind of metamorphosis before our very eyes. On Oil, we follow Xeon to a more rarefied place than she’s been before; while her earlier releases as an affiliate of the electronic collective PC Music were prismatic—all Day-Glo obfuscation—Xeon’s latest effort is clear, crystalline, and beautiful. From the first track—“It’s Okay to Cry,” which dropped last October—it’s apparent that what went into the album came out of Xeon’s intense conversations with herself:
I don’t mean to reproach you by saying this
I know that scares you
All of the big occasions you might have missed
No, I accept you
And I don’t even need to know your reasons
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…
I hope you don’t take this the wrong way
But I think your inside is your best side.
It’s as though she’s having a conversation with a mirror, one that doesn’t include declarations of who’s the fairest of them all. The video for “It’s Okay to Cry” is simple: Xeon, appearing like a marble bust with a shock of orange hair, sings in front of a series of changing skies. It’s the first song the artist has released where she’s singing with her own voice; her previous releases—loosies collected and bundled into the compilation Product in 2015—were more about SOPHIE as a pop project than as an artist. 2013’s “Bipp,” Xeon’s first big hit, boasted all of her trademark sounds, though it obscured the artist’s presence in favor of the song’s kinetic propulsion. It was a breakthrough production, and it made Xeon’s name. Oil, however, manages the same trick without playing hide-and-seek.
A couple of months after the release of “It’s Okay to Cry,” the famously interview-shy Xeon agreed to speak with the writer Michelle Lhooq for Teen Vogue and explained the transformation she hopes to document in the album. “ ’It’s Okay to Cry’ served a pivotal role in helping many realize that she is transgender,” Lhooq wrote. “When I ask why she’d chosen this moment to reveal herself, both literally and metaphorically, SOPHIE replies, ‘I don’t really agree with the term “coming out”…. I’m just going with what feels honest.’ ”
Xeon’s honesty in Oil is what gives the album its verve. On “Faceshopping,” one of the standout tracks, SOPHIE’s lyrics discuss her relationship with her face, flipping the words and their meanings around, as if to try them out or spin them in a different direction. “My face is the front of shop / My face is the real shop front / My shop is the face I front / I’m real when I shop my face,” sings vocalist Cecil Believe, before the lyrics get more granular: “Artificial bloom / Hydroponic skin / Chemical release / Synthesize the real / Plastic surgery / Social dialect / Positive results / Documents of life.” Xeon’s doing alchemy here—not just with who she is but also with how she sounds.
Oil also suggests where Xeon is headed. “Pretending,” for example, is gloomier than her previous efforts, a murky song of transformation and rebirth. The synths slide over one another in a primordial ooze, documenting something like an embryonic transformation. In “Is It Cold in the Water?” the arpeggiated synths speed up this sense of change, rising to a point of anxious urgency. The song ends with all of the music dying at once, and it’s a shock.
“Ponyboy” is probably the sexiest thing that Xeon’s recorded, with lyrics like “Spit on my face / Put the pony in his place / I am your toy / Just a little ponyboy” over a punishing bass kick. Oil’s brazenness is awe-inspiring. While the album plays intelligently with gender and identity—the fluid ways we make and remake ourselves—its real strength lies in how it showcases Xeon’s growth as a musician. She’s moved away in part from her previous chemical bubblegum pop, toward harsher and darker and often more beautiful electronic textures, some of which she explored with Vince Staples on last year’s Big Fish Theory. (Xeon produced “Yeah Right,” one of that album’s best tracks.) This progress captures her as an artist very much in flux, yet one who’s also very sure of herself and her work.
Negro Swan, the new album by Blood Orange—the current stage name of the British singer, songwriter, and producer Devonté Hynes—is tonally quite different from Oil, though thematically (missing) it’s fairly similar. Hynes’s sound hasn’t undergone as much of a transformation from his earlier work, but as the album progresses, it’s clear that his songwriting and artistic instincts have. Across the album, there are spoken interludes by the TV host and activist Janet Mock that reinforce Negro Swan’s message—one of vulnerability in the face of oppression and even physical harm, and of the bravery that it takes to show up as yourself—even as they interpret it. In these passages, Mock tells us about family and community, “the spaces where you don’t have to shrink yourself,” and about how difficult it can be to “stop pretending, to stop performing in ways that people wanted me to.”
Mock’s voice is something of a vehicle for traversing Hynes’s often-weighty sounds. It ferries the listener across his falsettos and electric organs, and from the world as it seems now to a brighter, stranger twin inhabited mostly by queer people and people of color. At the beginning of “Jewelry,” Mock observes: “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, where we were not invited—yet we walk in and we show all the way up.”
And it works. In “Orlando,” the album’s first track, Hynes recalls being beaten up by his classmates for being different, for not quite fitting the black masculine archetype that they believed every man had to uphold:
After school, sucker-punched down
Down and out
First kiss was the floor
First kiss was the floor
But, God, it won’t make a difference if you don’t get up.
At the end of the song, Mock’s voice returns and brings us back into a slightly more enlightened present. “You know, an insult that we often put onto a lot of folk… ‘Oh, you’re doing too much,’” she says, over a swelling high hat. “So like, a couple years ago, I was like: ‘You know what? My resolution, my eternal resolution, will be…to do too much.’ ”
Trying too hard, doing too much, being too loud, too ambitious, too obvious, too insistent—for Hynes and Mock, this is exactly what the world needs more of. And for the rest of the album, the pair try to do exactly that, with Hynes bringing in other voices from the music industry to help him tell his story. We find him surrounded by collaborators: Puff Daddy, Tei Shi, A$AP Rocky, Project Pat, and Ian Isiah, among others.
The Puff Daddy and Tei Shi collaboration is particularly captivating: Hynes’s voice and music fade into the background, acting as a canvas upon which Puffy and Tei Shi can paint. Their addition is welcome, but the painting they produce with Hynes is, admittedly, not all that different from the one he made on the 2013 release Cupid Deluxe and on Freetown Sound, recorded between 2014 and 2016. And that’s part of the problem: For all of Negro Swan’s messages and fanfare, the beauty of the music itself has, after four Blood Orange albums from Hynes, worn a little thin. While the album is designed to be listened through many, many times, his lyrics are buried beneath layer upon layer of obfuscation—and you sometimes end up feeling like you’ve heard it all before. But to ask Hynes to change that would be to ask him to abandon his trademark style, the thing that made him famous as a musician and as a musical collaborator. Even so, there is a small change here. And isn’t that what life’s about?
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately implied that Negro Swan is Blood Orange’s first collaborative album. In fact, he has often had collaborators on past work. The text has been corrected.