Devonté Hynes’ artistic evolution has been an interesting one to watch, as well as one that’s generally been fairly unpredictable. He once specialized in a much more antagonistic form of music, screaming and screeching in UK-based dance punks Test Icicles. After the release of one bruising album, 2005’s For Screening Purposes Only, Hynes dropped the menace for a pair of lush indie folk albums as Lightspeed Champion. When that ran its course, the Dallas-born musician relocated from London to New York after a brief, unpleasant stint being involved with writing for X-Factor stars, and launched a new project dubbed Blood Orange, which concerned sophisticated, smooth-funk sounds rather than more explicit characteristics of indie rock. And after an intriguing if undercooked debut album in Coastal Grooves, Hynes cemented his reputation as a producer to watch on Solange’s True EP.
With Cupid Deluxe, his second album as Blood Orange, Hynes develops his ‘80s-steeped neon soul sound even further, fleshing out ideas more strongly with grooves that reach more satisfying resolutions and collaborators that add more depth and character to his songs. First single “Chamakay” has already been racking up good blog mileage, thanks to its gorgeous display of breathy vocal interplay between Hynes and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, set against a downtempo tropical funk arrangement. And on “No Right Thing,” Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth takes on vocal duties in a lush funk jam aided by hip-hop surrealist Clams Casino.
By and large, though, Cupid Deluxe is an album about a consistent atmosphere and groove rather than of standout moments. Certainly, there are details that do stand out, and it’s easy to fall in love with some of the more bite-sized chunks of the album. “Chosen,” for instance, doesn’t really need to be seven minutes long, but so much of it is gorgeously executed — the smooth-jazz saxophone, the ethereal choir, the slap bass — it’s easy to lose track of time. The popped and locked lite-funk of “Always Let U Down” could almost pass for being beamed here from 1988, while the excellent “You’re Not Good Enough,” in spite of its R&B vocal harmonies, reflects the new romantic sound of Roxy Music’s Avalon or Japan’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids more than proto-New Jack quiet storm.
Hynes’ work as Blood Orange is quickly turning into his most rewarding, and while Cupid Deluxe isn’t quite a great album, it’s a strong showing of his progress. Even when the songs don’t entirely come together, they always sound immaculate. And though it’s easy to read his aesthetic as kitschy or nostalgic, he backs up his lush ‘80s soul with songwriting strong enough to make his stylistic choices pay off more than they would were his productions merely hollow vessels. Even Cosby sweaters come back in style from time to time, but Blood Orange feels more like couture.