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Blood Orange’s ‘Cupid Deluxe’ Is a Marvel of Sweetly Pained, Outsider-Oriented R&B

Blood Orange. Photo by Stacey Mark.
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: November 19, 2013
Label: Domino

Born in Texas, raised in London, and academy-educated, Devonté Hynes, like all his gay friends, was severely bullied. So in 2004, when some other buds asked the then-18-year-old to join their dance-punk trio, they pointedly called themselves the Test Icicles. Ridiculously noisy U.K. Top 40 singles briefly ensued until he fled to Brooklyn, hooked up with Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis and Animal Collective producer Ben Allen, rechristened himself Lightspeed Champion, and made two albums of string-wrapped indie Americana that clashed ridiculously with his Mockney vocal stylings, but nevertheless made him, according to the NME‘s readership, the “20th-coolest person in rock.”

Now feeling the fear he provoked by simply being a lanky, dark-skinned man in America, yet still honoring the battered child inside, Hynes next discovered New York City’s transsexual ball culture, and insinuated that vogueing vibe into his latest persona, Blood Orange. Like his previous projects, this too was greeted with Yank indifference until a year ago, when two major producing/writing collaborations — model-turned-singer Sky Ferriera’s “Everything Is Embarrassing” and progressive R&B honcho Solange Knowles’ True EP — hit the blogs. Like Hynes’ previous work, both projects fetishized frustration, but this time via glamorous mouthpieces now fully engaged with catchy, brainy, sonically detailed, and emotionally deep art-pop/soul fusion that distinguishes Hynes from most of his contemporaries and raised the bar for all involved.

His first post-Solange endeavor, Cupid Deluxe, is the closest that a solo album can get to a producer’s compilation. Low-key female vocalists dominate: When Hynes does sing, it’s in a clenched, confessional tone copped from ’80s Europop singer F. R. David, and it’s often doubled by Brooklyn pals Caroline Polachek (of Chairlift) or Samantha Urbani (of Friends), who both recall Ferreira and Knowles’ understated croons. The result is the most R&B record in Hynes’ varied career, albeit R&B from the displaced perspective of an intellectual who sees himself in the spaces between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, foreign and indigenous. This is “realness” in the drag-culture sense, estranged one step further by a guy who can’t find a margin to call home.

Instead, he loses himself in the supremely sensual slow-motion disco-funk of Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” the album’s never-quoted but nevertheless defining groove. Bassist David Ginyard gives the record’s most masculine and virtuosic performance, slipping and sliding where Hynes and his women hesitate and ponder, and it’s this frisson between the two approaches that releases otherwise-muted pleasures. Opening track “Chamakay” evokes Hynes’ mother’s native Guyana: Dignified, dub-like, and gently Caribbean, it glows with sudden rainbows of harmony. Polachek has never sounded more liberated, fluttering around Hynes as if he were the flower and she the bee. Smooth-jazz sax sails away for the finish, an amuse-bouche of tangier flavors to come.

As you might expect from a guy so estranged that he’s both barely there on his own record and everywhere on it several steps removed, Hynes has intimacy problems: “You never could’ve been a good lover,” he and Urbani whisper in unison on the tenderly cruel “You’re Not Good Enough.” He’s also a clever multi-instrumentalist who sets aside most of his clickety-clack, indie-rock guitar vocab in favor of similarly staccato funk. That song situates the duet partners’ sweet spot somewhere to the left of the Police, but clears away the riffs for a mournful synth solo that sweetly hums the album’s most pained melody, all while mainstream rock/soul/hip-hop studio vet Jimmy Douglass makes everything glisten like a classic Quincy Jones jam via his meticulous yet spacious mix.

Influenced by previous group-effort projects like Gorillaz, Massive Attack, and the various works of Malcolm McLaren, Cupid Deluxe collapses the distance between foreground and background, star and support. Dirty Projectors frontman David Longstreth sings lead on “No Right Thing”; Hynes briefly steps in during the break, matching that seemingly inimitable vocal tone, then steps back into the choir. From there, the “Sexual Healing”-goes-Afrobeat rhythm drops out as Urbani enters, singing, “You can’t see me when you’re pushing me away,” as if her own appearance magically nudged aside all but the highlife guitars.

Packed with these canny connections between music and lyrics, Cupid highlights Hynes’ tremendous recent advancement as an arranger. No doubt this growth spurt has been partially facilitated by the larger cultural shift that’s embraced nontraditional African-American masculinity via kindred souls Frank Ocean, Miguel, and the Weeknd, as well as his own transition from Brooklyn to Manhattan, an evolution that makes the album, as he’s described it, about “moving from a stable to an unstable position.”

Nowhere is this better played out than on “Always Let U Down,” an implausible cover of Mansun’s “I Can Only Disappoint U.” Blending glam, prog, and pop unlike any of their millennial-cusp contemporaries, Mansun fell victim to the fickle Brit press, but nonetheless ranked high on Hynes’ list of childhood favorites, yet here he treats them irreverently, dropping their 2000 U.K. hit’s tempo drastically to sync it with the reggae-funk of Grace Jones’ “Nipple to the Bottle” and the beat-box hiccups of the Fat Boys’ “Stick ‘Em.” His swooping bass takes the lead while his guitar scratches and scrawls around Urbani’s vocals, until Douglass drops the fader like a DJ to reveal a somber, Debussy-like piano that echoes the lyric’s despair. None of these elements should gel, but Hynes, accustomed to seeing his reflection in what culture tells him is disharmonious, sutures them with surgeon-like precision. If music can’t help us come together, what can?