Some musicians seem to ooze coolness. A$AP Rocky has his style and nonchalance, Julian Casablancas has his badassery, Tyler the Creator has his caps lock, Fiona Apple doesn’t give a fuck and André 3000 is André 3000.
And then there are those musicians who seem desperate to avoid being cool. For a long time, Dev Hynes personified this. His progression from the dance-punk outfit, Test Icicles to indie-pop singer Lightspeed Champion represented a huge change in form for Hynes, but came with ridiculous hair, too-librarian-to-be-retro glasses and a gang of puppets. But then came his metamorphism into Blood Orange.
With Blood Orange, Hynes found a guise that seemed to come naturally to him. The rhythmic 80s sounds that he has adopted on Cupid Deluxe fit both his voice and subject matter so naturally that it almost seems strange to think of it as a new direction. And it’s come with a new style too: his minimalist outfits come with strikingly Prince-like dance moves.
Cupid Deluxe is both the natural next progression in Hynes’ development, as well as a coming together of his vast array of work: he’s worked with Solange, Britney Spears, Florence & The Machine, Theophilus London, The Chemical Brothers and Bleeding Knees Club amongst others. As he told DazedDigital, “[Cupid’s Deluxe] is not as separated as it seems. I always just try and do what I’m feeling at that moment and that could be spread across a number of different things or come out in different avenues. They all inform each other, in a way”. And these different avenues are felt across the album: “This whole album is littered with references – self references, references to other songs.”
One such reference is Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing“, which Hynes produced last year. Its simple, hazy aesthetic, metronomic claps and murmured chorus almost feel like a archetype for Cupid Deluxe, but the complexity of the music mean that we can see “Everything” for what it really was: a genesis.
Hynes weaves tales of heartbreak and self-doubt. But despite the obvious potential for solemnity, he entwines his stories with such upbeat rhythms that it is only when one listens past the music that the underlying messages become apparent. And this incongruity makes it hit all the harder.
That sense of self-oppugnancy is a theme that runs throughout the album. The opening track’s refrain, sung along with Caroline Polachek (of Chairlift), is a murmur of devotion and heartbreak: “I’ll never leave you if you’re thinking that it’s all the same/ I’ll never trust you if you’re thinking that it’s just a game”. Yet this is immediately followed by the purposefully-bravado, ‘You’re Not Good Enough’, in which Hynes delivers lines like “I never was in love/ You know that you were never good enough” with such forthright off-handedness that its sincerity is only belied by what it follows. But this is far from a mistaken contradiction, it is Hynes’ story of heartbreak: of the cauterisation that follows the pain.
And then there are the guest vocalists, who each continue in the same thematic vein. The nimbleness of Friends’ Samantha Urbani’s voice serves to emphasise the anguish of the chorus she sings. Prodigal hip-hop producer Clams Casino provides the platform for Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth soulful yearnings on “No Right Thing”. Grime rapper, Despot angrily tells a tale of being led on by a “devil barely in a dress”. And although all the heartbreak could become overbearing, Hynes – as we first saw with “Everything Is Embarrassing” – has an uncanny ability to completely mask complex emotional topics with cheerful, funky melodies.
As befits an artist with as diverse a past as Hynes’, Cupid Deluxe is an album filled with sonic variety. There’s the funkiness of “You’re Not Good Enough” contrasted with the ominousness of its conclusion. There’s “Uncle ACE”, which has its incredibly difficult subject matter at the front, followed by a gorgeous coda that is entirely different from its beginning – much like Kanye West’s “New Slaves”. “Chamakay” with its steelpan drums, and “It Is What It Is” with its balafon-infused melody, make reference to his Guyanese heritage. And the stunning closer, “Time Will Tell” boasts stately piano which is perfectly underpinned by its synth heartbeat.
But for all its variety, the album never seems to lose cohesion or direction. The themes of heartache and isolation are twinned with a synth clap, and they run through the album, providing us with a Theseus-esque thread to follow. It is an album filled with complexities. There are the complexities of the sounds, of the themes he deals with and the openly exposed complexities of Hynes himself. And yet he manages to combine them into a gorgeously cohesive album, which is as easy to listen to as it is powerful to reflect upon.