Dev Hynes has blown up since he released his last album as Blood Orange, 2011’s Coastal Grooves. Interestingly, he’s attracted praise for his work as a producer, not as a solo artist. “It was a weak year for up-the-middle melodies and sugar,” wrote The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones about 2012, but he listed two Hynes-produced tracks—along with the Carly Rae Jepsen juggernaut “Call Me Maybe”—as the exception to this rule. Hynes worked with Beyonce’s sister Solange on the EP True and produced Sky Ferreira’s “Everything is Embarrassing”, which were both well-liked. In 2013, he’s been raising his profile on tour, in addition to aiding others in their quest for sugar: he produced “Flatline”, by Mutya Keisha Siobhan, former members of the mega-successful English pop-group Sugababes. He’s also supposed to have worked with Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue.
The 1980s was an amazing decade for pop-R&B crossover, and Hynes lives and breathes the artists who excelled in that world—Prince (with edges removed), Madonna, Luther Vandross, Sade, Ready For The World. A Hynes track contains thin, programmed drums, heavy on cymbal-ticks, sometimes arranged in triple-time beats that verge on New Jack Swing. The bass comes in spurts, barrages of slapped notes (see the second half of “Everything Is Embarrassing”) or just a few big blurts to embellish forward progression, as in Blood Orange’s “Dinner”. Guitars play muted funk patterns, flat and snaking, while synthesizers supplement the melody but don’t drive it. Vocals come falsetto and layered, breathy and twirling—see “Champagne Coast”, from the last Blood Orange album, or “Flatline”,—whether they belong to Hynes or someone else. (Though Hynes isn’t capable of twirls in the same manner as, say, Solange.)
Coastal Grooves was more of a Hynes showcase, but Hynes adds a few things for his new release, Cupid Deluxe: namely saxophone, female vocalists (Friends’ Samantha Urbani and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek), and a couple rappers. Saxophone is an obvious move for him. Horn sections were disappearing in the ‘80s, replaced by synthesizers, phased out due to cost, or dropped because they didn’t fit with the new sounds, but the sax held out through the ‘80s, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. “Chosen” starts with an extended saxophone exploration, maybe interpolating a bit on the melody from Solange’s “Bad Girls (Verdine Version)”. (“Time Will Tell” references “Champagne Coast”, from the previous Blood Orange album; Hynes is in a reflective mood.) Sax appears during “Uncle ACE” and “Chamakay” as well.
For an artist who has made a name producing others, it makes sense to include more collaborators, even in a solo project. So female vocals take the lead on “Always Let U Down”, and “It Is What It Is” uses a lady to sing the hook. There’s a French-accented female monologue in “Chosen” reminiscent of monologue in M83’s “Graveyard Girl”, or maybe a song by the Teenagers. “High Street” and “Clipped On” both feature rapping, and the beat of “High Street” sounds like it swipes James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”. However, just like the ‘80s artists channeled in Cupid Deluxe, Hynes doesn’t really know how to make compelling work with rappers. (Ever listened to Prince rap? It’s best to avoid it if possible.) That skill may develop with time.
This is Hynes’ own work, so he gets more room for experimentation—which can be good—and self-indulgence, which can be dangerous. He’s not concerned with song-length here; only two of eleven tracks are less than four minutes long. That’s not necessarily bad, but Hynes doesn’t always use that time for something extra, so much as stretch a three minute song out longer. And that monologue is unnecessary. “I stayed up all night long,” the unnamed woman says, “waiting for the final ache in my heart to subside / It never happened / He was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen…” It’s too heavy-handed, even for a man who excels at making songs full of frank romantic discussion.
Hynes shows his trademark moves, and also demonstrates that he’s not a one-trick pony—he can expand his sound, and push further into new territory. But nothing on Cupid Deluxe reaches the same streamlined, lovelorn, economical heights as his production work for other singers. As Mutya Keisha Siobhan might put it, he’s a flatline. He oughta be a wave.