Monday, 18 November 2013

Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe


On the cover to UK singer-songwriter & producer Devonte Hynes' sophomore album Cupid Deluxe under the name Blood Orange, we're treated (to think of a more pleasant accompaniment) with what many would likely surmize the antithesis of modern RnB graphics. Rather than monochrome portraits, blossoming attempts at empathy or even deeper analogies to some accompanying visual or art-piece, we get a parodical pose of semi-naked bronze stature, as if taken from the cutting-room reel of a cheaper man's photo shoot studio. There's something despondent and distracting in this yes, but adding to its overall context, Orange's conclusive take on romance as less some absolute for loneliness, and more this rash network of potential mistrust and mistakes...the imagery leans closer to sense than most self-portraits. Hynes over the past couple of years has found a calming bluntness to his subject matter - taking in RnB's resurgent energy as of late but ensuring that beyond the instrumental licks, soothing grooves and frivolous production, there's a clear sense of message and reason amidst the carnival-like craze of rhythm and tone.

Cupid Deluxe, like the sleeve, could also be taken as an observational disprove - a parody of not just love's continuing presenting as some scented denominator that answers all of life's problems, but too RnB's potential self-indulgence with glamourising one's ability to the point of mistaken identity and off-putting ignorance. Of course, Hynes makes sure all areas are covered: slowed-down less-than-100 BPM tempos; slick guitar and bass strums; layered harmonics underneath rather than above the beats. Despite all this however, the surprise lies in its subject matter - or rather the careful planning of such - and the way Hynes implements it to his musical choices. From the first shuffling textures of drums and vocals on opener Chamakay there's an intriguing falsity of what might be perceived as relaxing and soothing instrumentation that in fact only colours inbetween the lines to fully realize Hynes' disconnection and delusion with love. 'Are you the one who breaks my heart out of my chest?/I'll never leave you if you're thinking that it's all the same.' he explains. 'But now you're feeling empty, I tried my best last time/I'll leave you with your feelings, I'll leave you in your lies' which precedes it, seems to suggest not only the stamp of an ultimatum, but one born from some [ex-]partner's strain on him as this intolerable feminism, let alone an intolerable individual.

The instrumental overlay increases on following track You're Not Good Enough which despite its title, tries to play a discreeter, suggestive alternative. What makes this work, and excel to further that, is the track's looping guitar bars and drum patterns - helping to exemplify the falsity of intimate-turn-hostile barrages that are (or can be) relationships. The fact that the vocals (which are sung from both perspectives/parties/supposed victims) are so strongly critical and disillusioned - 'Could never mean a word and still hurt you/Look the other way, please tell me that I am wrong' - only to fall back to a kind of defeated realisation that '49 days, surely I should be feeling a whole lot better/Ways and ways you keep on coming back/I keep letting you in' may not be sonically expressed as powerful or intently hard-hitting, yet it doesn't need to. Hynes' on-the-mark truth about society's weakness on being so vocally strong yet ultimately/eventually falling to weak-mindedness and conforming desperation, is in itself a hidden, but powerful undertone. Uncle ACE, while steps up proceedings with some more gallantly upfront guitar and less vocally-stricken passages, builds on the music's own strength with funk-laiden electric strings, some lush sweeps of brass and a drumbeat that leads but offers Hynes the room to nestle and tuck away without dropping out of sight.

No Right Thing in its instrumentation expands Hynes' focus on more classic, 80's ideas with guitars finely balanced in stature with bass synths and warmer layers of electronics and vocals rising and falling throughout. Even at its most emotionally intent - the lyrics (provided by Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors) hits on its narrative about wanting to be with someone whom, in question, shares none of the same romantic interest - the greater bubbling of bass and synths don't overdo or spill over the composition. Thus, proof is shown once more of Hynes' masterful balance between soothing and striking his listener with subject matter. Even when the vocals are taken away from Hynes and instead get given to the album's trustee of guests, like on the similarly-simmering pace of It Is What It Is, both vocallists manage to sink comfortably into the track's bittersweet, metropolitan gleam of guitars, humble piano and percussion...in all its bittersweet, high-flying:low-treading polarity of living. But it's on album highlight, the near-seven minute Chosen that Hynes culminates every atom of soul to channel the track's distantly-melancholic groove into something with more precedented truth hidden beneath. And while the beats here are more punchier and determined to leave a lasting effect, the dominating production choice becomes almost surmizeable in Hynes defeated murmur beneath: 'Another day and I'll lose/But I don't want to choose


Some may not perceive this in the same, and understandably so. But given Hynes' sparse, spacious instrumentation and the cold, nightly linger it often projects, there's at the very least an offering of reason behind it. Hip-hop is another area Blood Orange sports some interest in, and on Always Let U Down, Hynes' scratch-coated funk shifts a minor degree to the side with a beat reminiscent of 90's pop-fused likeability, without any of the unncessary ego or unintentional cheese. Instead, while relatively simple in its composite, Samantha Urbani on lead vocals plays well to the album's overall alternatives on love and intimacy without feeling like a take-or-leave add-on. There are moments unfortunately where the extensions are a little more obvious and the album not so much falters in its attention-grabbing, city-sweeping rhapsodies, but doesn't quite meet the extraordinarily high standards set by previous tracks. On The Line demonstrate an decent awaress from both vocallists' perspectives of one another's place to direct emotional toning forth, but there isn't as much an impact or immediance to compell the listener here as there is on earlier efforts. 

Perhaps the most surprising leap in style, and a track that will leave many gawking with fist-rubbed eyes as just how well Hynes' production can pull it off, is on the track High Street. While its just-under-thre-minute length is clear to both see and hear, Hynes makes every use of the time with a spoken rap provided by Skepta that takes the listener on a desperate, dream-coated (and surprisingly relatable) journey between the [Sega] Megadrive, 'complicated' issues with family, guys who give odd looks and above all, the hope rising above all hope that some day, one can be that guy in a just-as-successful, just-as-happy place in life. Time Will Tell goes against the previous tracks' meditative recapping with a dispersing beat that carries throughout amidst a line of vocal harmonies and piano chords that texturally sound like they're being played on an instrument just recently been locked away or sealed from know view. For a closer, the impression is that Hynes is a little more forward-looking as opposed to backwardly rememberant and stirring like the majority of the album has sticked to. And while the RnB fragrance of melody and tone continues to push the choruses' repetition of one-line lyrics, the instrumentation allows the shackles of negativity to come off at a time that might welcome a brighter aspect on events further down the line.

A lot has been said about the recent revival of RnB and how it's managed to sustain after a  two-decade split in long-lasting memorable content, with what many consider the fargone era of traditional rhythm and blues. There aren't as many acts in the World today who are carrying the flame for this dying sound, but those who exist carry the weight with tremendeous and awe-inspiring showmanship. Blood Orange is just one more name to add to that shining list of glamourous attraction mixed with emotional and essented attachment. With Cupid Deluxe, Devonte Hynes redefines himself as a name remembered not just for his musical orchestration and ear for RnB's connections, but through his own personal friction between human nature and societal difficulties. But most of all, not only is this success meritted to the production, it's an album strengthened by its invocative message that radiates to, sadly, almost all atypical affairs of modern-day, 'First World' realities on finding one's way in the World. There are those who never do (and never will) find the happiness lying at the end of that cold, isolating road sadly. Hynes is fortunate to have left that place. And as this album perfectly captures, it's more real and unanswered than most would dare to imagine.
~Jordan Helm

8.8

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