A tricky thing about situationships is that they’re comfortable. For all of the messiness that they come with, especially as the years grow — and other unfortunate people become collateral damage to it — they’re actually quite safe. You know the other person’s good side and the bad, and they know yours. You know everything they like: how to make them laugh, how to piss them off, and what things to tell them to certain reactions, which lies and truths to give them and when, and they know the same about you. The two of you might not love each other — at least not anymore — and have no realistic path to being together. But in a world where it often feels impossible to find someone to spend time with beyond having sex, in a world where loneliness is the natural order of things, it is understandable to cling to a person who at least gives you that comfort. Even if that’s all they can give.
When I first heard Cupid Deluxe by Blood Orange, otherwise known as Dev Hynes, I had ended a situationship some time before. It had been the best version of that kind of relationship. We had previously been together, broke up, and then just kept coming back to each other. Other girls came and went. And other guys came and went for her as well. In between those other adventures, we were with each other without being with each other. The best, or worst, thing about that kind of relationship is that because the two of us had been together and it had ended with the knowledge that we weren’t good for each other, it was a dead end. There was no reason to try again, which meant there was a freedom to keep up the ghost relationship without any pressure to be more than that. But that also meant that in a way, we were just wasting time. Or even worse, we were being cowards.
The song on Cupid Deluxe that I first replayed enough times to feel obsessive was the second track, “You’re Not Good Enough.” It’s one of the two songs that I think of as the pillars of a phenomenal album, along with “No Right Thing.” After streaming the album publicly for the first time before its release, Hynes said the album was about “transitions, life transitions. Moving from a stable position to an unstable position.” The sentiment was fitting given how the then-ascendent Blood Orange — Hynes’ endeavor into a Prince-like meld of ’80s R&B, funk, new wave, hip-hop, and more — represented his latest creative transformation after moving from the UK dance-punk band Test Icicles to the indie-folk solo project Lightspeed Champion. And there’s a very particular action that both of those songs share that signal that notion of transition, the act of looking.
The first verse captures the complexity of wanting someone but having to convince or remind yourself that they’re not good for you. In the second line, Hynes sings, “I see you as you’re looking over.” And in the second verse, right before asking to be convinced otherwise, to be told that he is wrong, he says, “Look the other way…”
Then in “No Right Thing,” that tension — of looking and looking away, of wanting and wanting not to want, of being wanted but also not wanted — continues when Dave Longstreth sings in the chorus, “But you look away, and I look to you.” Thus wonderfully concludes that curiosity and the desire to be wrong about a possible bad relationship, through a knowledge of having been through that relationship, and finding yourselves broken at the end of it, “That’s where we are, and what we saw was you/ On your own, and I’m on my own/ And we were wrong, there’s no right thing.”
The thing about transitions is that they take courage. They take a belief in the unknown — not a fearlessness in going towards something new, but a bravery to know that there must be something more out there. And even if there isn’t, that’s also fine, but one has to try and see for themselves.
Even before Cupid Deluxe, it was apparent that Hynes’ own journey in a smoother, mistier, more rhythmically charged direction was leading somewhere rewarding. Coastal Grooves, his 2011 debut as Blood Orange, was a radical transformation for an artist who’d recently been working with Mike Mogis and Saddle Creek. Hynes’ work with Sky Ferreira and Solange in 2012 had elevated his profile significantly, positioning him as one of the architects of an era when pop music and indie music were converging from both directions. Now, with Blood Orange’s sophomore LP, the project’s potential was being realized, with Hynes presiding over an array of collaborators including Longstreth (Dirty Projectors), Caroline Polachek (then of Chairlift), Samantha Urbani (then of Friends), Adam Bainbridge (Kindness), Despot, Skepta, and Clams Casino. With the help of that transatlantic ensemble, Hynes came up with songs that could be both liberating and devastating.
In a post on Tumblr from 2014 where he celebrated the one year anniversary of the album, Hynes wrote: “When I was younger (13?!) I would make tapes for friends at the skate park and family members, each one a different ‘album’ of material. It could be rap, it could be indie (i loved Mansun and Ash) it could be classical (my first instrument was the cello) or just weird piano things. I never stopped doing that, i’m still doing that…”
Released 10 years ago this Sunday, Cupid Deluxe embodies this eclectic sense of music-making, through its collaborators and its sound. Rather than making different albums of materials as he did in childhood, he brought it all together, along with his friends, into one complete body of work, and tied these different entities together through themes about love, regret, and hope that are everlasting and strong enough to withstand the collision of voices and styles. It’s easy to imagine how an album like this could have failed and spun out of control in the hands of another artist, but through the mind of Hynes, everything fits together seamlessly. From one song to the next.
What I love so much about “You’re Not Good Enough” is that it’s brutal. The lyrics “I never was in love/ You know that you were never good enough/ Fall asleep right next to me/ You know that you were never good enough” are like daggers to the heart, even if they are realizations that many of us come to eventually about someone we’ve spent a lot of time with. But the brutality of that song isn’t aimed at the lover in question, it’s aimed at the singer. He’s condemning himself for being cowardly, for not having the courage to leave, to transition out of the comfortable situation. It’s captured in the second verse, when he says, “Ways and ways/ You keep on coming back / I keep letting you in.” Almost worse than not being good enough for someone, is knowing that someone isn’t good enough for you, that you don’t love them, and being too weak to leave them.
Then in verse two of “No Right Thing,” that transition is finally made with “I’ve been changing my whole scene/ You need somebody different/ This is where we got to/ Knowing that you’re the wrong thing.” But then, what is so wonderful about Urbani’s bridge in that song, is that it completely flips the perspective of the story, from the one that is leaving to the one that’s being left. Suddenly the distance is closed and the pain of the situation is amplified, since the protagonist might be ready to move on, because he doesn’t love the other, but the other, who hasn’t looked away, makes it clear that even if she is being looked at, she is not being seen.
Even more merciless than being told that you’re not good enough is the self acknowledgement in the lyrics, “But you can’t see me, when you’re pushing me away/ You can’t see me, when you’re pushing me away/ I’m the one who sees you, I’m the one who needs you.” She is looking at him, but he’s looking through her.
There’s a pleading, almost pathetic nature to it — not in the sense of the person being inadequate, but of them being exposed and deserving of comfort. A comfort that can’t be granted because there’s not much that can be done for someone whose love is not returned. Her bridge is like a footnote that illuminates the pain of the ending of a love when it’s finally over.
The entire album is beautiful and has held up tremendously 10 years later. Funky, jazzy, retro, and at the same time futuristic, what makes it work so well includes the mixture of all of these elements in a way that feels authentic, original, and personal to Hynes’ own musical journey and development. It is the best kind of creativity, in taking all of one’s inspirations and finding a way to find and develop your voice through them, rather than merely mimicking them.
He does this through structuring the story of the album around the transitions of a relationship and what that entails. Not only the optimism and development of courage to begin something new, but the pain of the winding down of a love, the acknowledgement that things are ending, the heartbreak, and that desire to look and be seen by the person you desire. It is a timeless topic, but approached gently, with respect to the gravity of what love means to people. “You’re Not Good Enough” could have been like Eamon’s “Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back),” but the intimacy is too great, and the protagonist is too understanding of his own role, for it to become vindictive. The album is vulnerable in a way that it’s not just the spilling of feelings, but also a reflection of one’s own role in things beginning and ending.
The sound of Cupid Deluxe is timeless, and Dev Hynes has gone on to develop, refine, and experiment with his music since. One aspect that links all of his Blood Orange releases together is that he tends to understand that the best kind of love songs, whether about new love or ending a love, are the love songs you can dance and move to. Ones that also don’t sink you into the drama of the feelings but allows you to float and glide on top of them.
The first time a young friend of mine told me to listen to the latest Steve Lacy album, which is also fantastic, I went through all the songs and told her that it sounded like his version of a Blood Orange album. It wasn’t surprising considering their musical similarities and the fact that they did a song together on Negro Swan. Then I let her listen to “You’re Not Good Enough,” which hit her right in the heart, put her in her feelings. Before we started listening to songs, we had been talking about her own situationship, which seemed on the verge of ending. Blood Orange’s music can have that effect on first impact, and its power lingers with time. The beauty of Cupid Deluxe, an album that speaks so deeply to the experience of moving beyond your past, is that when you return to it, you never feel like you’re spinning your wheels.