serpentwithfeet Gorgeously Centers Black Queer Joy and Love on DEACON
The Ty Dolla $ign and Björk collaborator’s brief sophomore LP is his gentlest, warmest work yetMusic Reviews serpentwithfeet
On DEACON, serpentwithfeet presents Black queer love and joy more as a series of little everyday moments than an all-consuming, mystical force. While vivid details and a Black queer foundation are nothing new for the Ty Dolla $ign and Björk collaborator—on “fragrant,” from his 2018 debut LP soil, he recalled asking all of his ex’s exes one by one to kiss him—the presence of unbridled joy and love on his sophomore album is a striking sea change. Where serpent mourned fizzling loves on soil and debut EP blisters, here, he hails the simple glories and everyday little moments of thriving Black queer romances. His perspective, though a stretch to read as some sort of overt or grand political statement, is a beaming needle in the ever-cluttered, often redundant haystack of romantic music.
DEACON’s bliss has roots in last year’s “Psychic,” a balmy devotional that ended serpent’s Apparitions EP. The album likewise continues the EP’s slow steps away from serpent’s longtime synthetic twistedness toward more soothing textures, and its wispier sounds, which are partially the genius of co-producers including Sampha, Batu and Lil Silva, are equal parts alive with the glory of love and hazy with the tranquility of waking up next to someone regret-free. It’s an album on which the song titled “Old & Fine” isn’t about intergenerational lust but serpent’s vision of a lifetime with his partner.
“Old” comprises silky midtempo bass, chime-like synths, air-thin snaps and not much else, and serpent’s alternatingly low- and high-pitched whispers largely guide the song. Here, it’s his partner’s tiniest actions that show him he’s found the one—leaving a kind note for a server, calling everyone’s mom “mama”—and make the story earnest and endearing. “Amir” is likewise all serenity, space and narrative minutiae, nylon guitar plucks and nimble synthetic percussion underpinning serpent’s simple, enlightening desire to “hear about your folks” and unfeigned enjoyment of a partner’s “corny jokes.” These are neither first-date questions, nor decades-together asks—on “Amir,” serpent is in that slightly mythical period between first making a connection and becoming fully intertwined with a partner. In illuminating such commonplace but meaningful romantic details, he breathes life into his music.
If this all sounds like a complete 180 or a push for mainstream success, it’s decidedly not—plenty of classic serpentisms abound on DEACON. Just as serpent fixated on body odor throughout soil, corporeal fascinations tie DEACON to his larger oeuvre. The piano ballad “Derrick’s Beard” is about exactly what its title suggests; its main lyric is “Come over here / Missing your beard.” On “Same Size Shoe,” a track that sounds like strolling through the desert at dusk, serpent sings, “Me and my boo wear the same size shoe,” but unlike with many of his starkest bodily images, he isn’t being as literal as, say, following someone’s scent. (In 2018, he told me that he nearly did ask all of his ex’s exes to kiss him: “If I knew that they wouldn’t have gone off on me, I probably would have done it.”) Instead, shared shoe sizes represent the unique overlap that two Black queer people have and how that alignment makes for stronger relationships.
Although Black queerness permeates DEACON, it does so like air instead of rushing water. Its presence lies in subtleties, such as two masculine-named songs taking place in cities with majority-Black populations: “Malik” in Atlanta, “Amir” in Washington, D.C. It manifests in the intro of the lurching sex jam “Wood Boy,” the only soil-esque song here, when serpent whispers the n-word so softly it almost instantly disappears into the ether. And it’s in the album’s artwork and music videos, which depict serpent and his partner simply and lovingly co-existing. These tiny bits coalesce to say that, first and foremost, this is unabashed love, and second, it just so happens to be unabashed love between Black queer people, no need to read further into it.
If DEACON has one flaw, it’s that the album’s mere half-hour runtime and humid atmosphere make it feel like a brief dream rather than an immersive experience. Just when you’re really getting to know serpent’s journey, it ends, though perhaps that’s intentional. “Heard most couples stop smiling after the first year,” serpent sings on “Sailor’s Superstition,” the album’s most upbeat track, and DEACON is a stirring capsule of everything that comes before then and hopefully after. If the most beautiful things in life are indeed fleeting, then DEACON is as poignant a flash in the pan as they come.