This is going to sound absolutely ridiculous, but Cupid Deluxe, Dev Hynes’s second album as Blood Orange, reminds me of The Chronic. Hynes’s lush and silky bedroom-pop is obviously light years removed, stylistically, from Dr. Dre’s snarling cinematic act of West Coast rap world-creation. But it takes a certain form of vision to be both a consummate collaborator and a deeply personal and singular artist, an artist with a particular sound that you can recognize from a block away. The Chronic and Cupid Deluxe are both albums full of different voices — voices that could, and do, hold down great albums of their own. Within the greater context of the albums, those voices get their own little starring moments, moments that establish a personality and take over the narrative for a verse at a time. But on both albums, those voices are supporting players, pieces within a whole. Both albums are rooted in a time and a place: The tense-but-euphoric Los Angeles that existed in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 riots and the Bloods/Crips truce for The Chronic, the cosmopolitan and retro-addled and cash-strapped and everything-socially-interconnected New York of this exact moment for Cupid Deluxe. And both albums owe their existences to the two brilliant, intuitive studio-rat artists who pulled all these voices together into sonically rich, referential, beautifully realized musical experiences.
Since I’ve already stretched the comparison beyond all ideas of common sense, I’ll note that there are more parallels at work here. Both Dre and Hynes grew up, sometimes awkwardly, in public — Dre rocking sequins and white gloves and eyeliner with the roller-rink electro group World Class Wreckin Cru, Hynes with post-hardcore tantrum-throwers Test Icicles and the getting-there-but-not-quite solo indie project Lightspeed Champion (and even with the last Blood Orange album, 2011’s Coastal Grooves, which wasn’t nearly this good). Both helped to make other people into stars — Ice Cube and Eazy-E for Dre, Solange and Sky Ferreira for Hynes — before going through some level of falling-out with them. (Solange isn’t threatening to murder Hynes on record or anything, but this FADER story has plenty about the vague tension between them.) Friends singer Samantha Urbani is Hynes’s girlfriend, and on Cupid Deluxe , she’s also his Snoop Doggy Dogg, an effortlessly smooth stoner-pop vocalist who steals entire songs without even necessarily trying. (I hope she makes her own Doggystyle next.) And even given the obviously-tremendous levels of talent in everyone involved, it’s tough to shake the idea that some of these people are just now, with Hynes, hitting some sort of artistic high-water mark.
It wouldn’t make sense to call Cupid Deluxe an indie version of The Chronic, but that’s mostly because who even knows what “indie” means anymore, whether an idiosyncratic pop album like this can or should qualify. Hynes’s sensibility has nothing to do with Pavement or Fugazi or whatever; it’s drawn more from Prince and Janet Jackson and Terrence Trent D’Arby and Richard Marx. (It’s closer to Dr. Dre, actually, than to any 1992-era definition of “indie.”) But Hynes’s lightness of touch, his deft softness, feels revelatory in a way that, say, Stuart Murdoch’s softness once felt like something new. This is emotionally expansive, wide-open music, music about wanting to close the divide between someone else but not knowing how to do it. “Uncle ACE” is a gorgeously slick disco song named for the nickname that many homeless gay teenagers have given to the subway line they sleep under, as Ryan Dombal points out in his Pitchfork review. “It Is What It Is” is a shivering, weightless thing about wondering whether you’ve lost your place in the world. “You’re Not Good Enough” is a positively brutal romantic kiss-off, one mostly delivered by Hynes’s real-life girlfriend. This is private, obsessive, deeply-felt music, and if not for all the craftsmanship involved, the lyrics might come off like diary-scribbling. And yet Hynes manages to make a communal experience out of it, getting great work out of his collaborators and bringing them into his personal soundworld.
Cupid Deluxe has two rap songs, and both push the guest rappers into places where I’ve never heard them. “Clipped On” has Despot, of Queens, a veteran of the Def Jux skronk-rap underground. But here, he’s rapping plain, conversational relationship jealousy-based real-talk over tumbling breakbeats and sunny, airy electric-piano chords. Skepta, meanwhile, comes from London’s noisy, fervid grime world, but on “High Street,” he raps calmly and contemplatively about trying to find ways to escape childhood poverty, about hearing his voice on the radio for the first time. Both get to, more or less, take the lead on their respective songs, finding a place for their voices within Hyne’s chiffon-smooth aesthetic. And both sound amazing, like they’ve finally arrived home. Urbani, too, sounds better than ever, her sassily smoky alto hovering just above Hynes’s marimba-dings and bass-pops. Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek makes a gorgeous echo on “Chamakay,” answering Hynes’s fragile, tentative tenor like a sympathetic ghost. Dave Longstreth, on “No Right Thing,” gets to turn the theoretical R&B impulses of his Dirty Projectors records into something tangible and real, putting on an absolute white-soul clinic. And even if you can’t always pick out Kindness or Clams Casino, it helps, somehow, to know that they’re there, that they’re contributing to this community of artists, that they’re part of the support network.
With all those voices working, it might be easy for Hynes to get lost in the shuffle, but that never quite happens. Just as Dre’s no-nonsense bulldozer delivery ensured he’d stand out on his own album, Hynes has more than enough presence to shine among his peers. Hynes is clearly a student of the theatrically soft disco and R&B singers of bygone eras. He’s not a showy singer, rarely taking a big note or overpowering the track. Instead, he gulps and shudders and stage-whispers, darting in and out with all the grace of a frightened deer. And that hushed, intimate delivery — you can almost always hear his breath-intakes — works wonders for him, since it allows him to dip and dance his way through his own musical landscapes, treating them like playgrounds. Maybe one day he’ll make a truly solo Blood Orange album, use these perfectly-harnessed gifts without all the guests, bring that same intimacy on an album where he’s the only one. Or maybe he’ll go the other way and disappear behind the boards, continuing to help other artists find their voices. I have no idea where he’ll go from here, honesly. But I do know that, if Hynes ever makes his own headphones, I’ll be first in line to buy a pair.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The all-star soundtrack album for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
• Magik Markers’ intense, dissonant Surrender To Fantasy.
• Emily Jane White’s dark narco-folker Blood/Lines.
• Dirty Three member Mick Turner’s solo joint Don’t Tell The Driver.
• In its American release, Beady Eye’s Dave Sitek-produced BE.
• Sandrider’s scuzzed-out, loud-as-fuck Godhead.
• The self-explanatory Rockin’ Legends Pay Tribute To Jack White compilation.
• Kurt Vile’s It’s A Big World Out There (And I Am Scared) EP.
• Ghost B.C.’s If You Have Ghost EP.