November 13, 2013

Test Spins: Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe

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With all the attention that Devonté Hynes garnered after co-writing and producing Solange’s “Losing You” and Sky Ferreira’s “Everything is Embarrassing,” it was only natural that he would return to his own work as Blood Orange with gusto, as everybody watched closely with high expectations. And by god, Hynes has not only met lofty expectations, he’s exceeded them: Cupid Deluxe is a return to the true spirit of ’80s synthpop and disco that manages to stay emotive and lush. It is clear evidence of a grown-up artist who has finally found his place.

It hasn’t always been this way. Hynes struck out a solo career as Lightspeed Champion, where he wore cardigans and uncomfortably sang indie country songs. In one album cover, he stares off into the distance, looking a little lost and very alone.

Hynes is best when he works with others, as he said in an interview: “If there’s a better voice [than mine] suited to a song — I usually have a female voice in my head, anyway — then I would rather her sing it.” When he dropped his debut album as Blood Orange, Coastal Grooves, he was still mostly twanging out stark road music, which sounded like a tepid Dirty Beaches, by his lonesome. Coastal Grooves, however, showed that Hynes has a gift for picking out great melodies.

With Sky Ferreira’s “Everything is Embarrassing,” everything seemed to fall in place. The song’s simple drum beat and church-like synths worked pure magic over Sky Ferreira’s brooding lyricism and somber voice. Hynes reached even greater heights with Solange’s “Losing You,” which dialed up those elements for a song with a cosmopolitan sheen. The music video for “Losing You,” featuring Solange on a trip through South Africa with impeccably-dressed locals, makes that globalism explicit. “Losing You” set up a winning formula: Just add a funky bass, a worldly beat, somber synths and a talented vocalist with unlimited emotional yearning.

That doesn’t mean that Hynes uses female vocalists as a crutch — Cupid Deluxe’s instrumentals definitively prove Hynes has talent. Rather, it evinces his own artistic confidence to recognize and accept when something works best. Opener “Chamakay” is replete with marimba shuffling and R&B beats that provide a foundation, but it is Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, with her silky-smooth voice, who performs a beautiful duet with Hynes, that propels the song forward. “I see you waiting for a girl like me to come along,” they both croon with a heart-wrenching strain of emotional longing. Polachek concludes the song by bearing that emotional weight alone, repeating “come along” in a ghostly echo, as if repeating it enough would make her wish come true.

“You’re Not Good Enough” is ostensibly different, with more pronounced funk bass and deliberately flippant vocals. “I never was in love,” he brushes off with Samatha Urbani of Friends, “you know that you were never good enough.” But this and “Chamakay” are really two sides of the same coin: Cupid Deluxe is a return back to the heady, confusing time in the ’80s when disco, synthpop and funk all blended together. “Uncle ACE” has a decidedly disco drumbeat and “It Is What It Is” is also clearly ’80s style synthpop. The album is complex, colorful and a little sexual in the way that other “disco throwback” albums are not. Disco in the ’80s was gay, ethnic and gender-bending in ways that would surprise listeners today — Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories sounds sterile in comparison. Cupid Deluxe simultaneously has that magic touch of ’80s disco that deftly mixed heartbreak and yearning in ways that no other genre has bested.

The legacy of ’80s disco was also about alienation and scraping by: It is impossible to talk about ’80s disco/synthpop without recognizing its cultural context. The documentary Paris is Burning captures this with Harlem’s drag balls in the ’80s — then, the  balls were supportive places for homeless youth who were cast out of their homes for coming out. But, as drag icon Pepper LaBeija explains in the film, drag balls were about looking “as much as possible like your straight counterpart … Rather than go around with prejudices about your life and your lifestyle, you can walk around comfortably, living like everybody else.” Drag balls were a delicate balance between self-expression against prejudice and an internalized prejudicial desire for a rich, straight life against self-expression.

Cupid Deluxe, reflecting this mindset, is replete with precious moments like this where tragic perseverance is heroically upheld in the face of permanent vulnerability. “But you can’t see me, when you’re pushing me away,” a female voice blurts out towards the end of “No Right Thing.” “No one’s waiting for you anyway, so don’t be stressed now. … Even if it’s all you know just keep your head up,” he croons in the beautiful conclusion “Time Will Tell.” It’s lonely at the top, but now Hynes can finally be himself.