In both life and art Devonté Hynes has spent his 27 years an outsider. A young black male raised in London with a tight-knit circle of gay schoolmates, he spent his childhood mercilessly bullied. It’s unsurprising then, that he would find his muse in the New York City ball culture of the mid-to-late 1980s, in which the gay and transgender community gathered for highly structured competitions during a time of extreme oppression and poverty.
Though only one track specifically references this world – the jazz-funk-indebted ‘Uncle ACE’, which offers a window into the lives of homeless LGBT teens who seek refuge in the ACE subway line – the idea of the ‘other’ is one that suffuses Cupid Deluxe. Hynes’ career has always been one marked by guises (first, his post-punk band Test Icicles, followed by a folk-pop reincarnation as Lightspeed Champion), and this record sees him assume more practical roles, including straight man (‘You’re Not Good Enough), straight woman (‘Chamakay’), and the LGBT community (‘No Right Thing’).
A crucial component of ball culture is what’s referred to as ‘realness‘, the art of assuming a role, gender, or particular individual in a way that achieves a kind of aspirational voyeurism. And realness is perhaps the best way to appreciate Cupid Deluxe, a collaborative record with emulation at its heart. With the help of Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, ‘Chamakay”s graceful mid-tempo glide comes off like a fantasy duet between Prince and Mariah Carey. Meanwhile, Mansun’s 2000 single ‘I Can Only Disappoint U’ is awarded new, 80s R&B-inflected life as ‘Always Let U Down’, to surprisingly great effect.
Hynes’ biggest success has always been as a producer, so it’s no coincidence that Cupid Deluxe‘s wide range of guest musicians, samples and references are used with precision and purpose. Spaced just ten minutes apart, ‘Clipped On’ and ‘High Street’ create a transatlantic narrative, using the disparate accents of rappers Despot and Skepta to articulate Hynes’ current NYC dwelling and his Ilford upbringing, respectively. He remains as astute a musician as he is a sonic architect, however – some of the record’s most affecting moments are directly his own contributions. Closing track and ‘It Is What It Is’ coda ‘Time Will Tell’ ensures it ends on Hynes’ terms with a delicate one-take vocal.
Cupid Deluxe runs the gamut of 80s touchstones with a masterstroke, but always as a means to a much more important end, enabling Hynes to form a topography of his memories. Blood Orange is hardly the first to fetishise outsiderism, but never has it sounded so artistically and emotionally pure. Like with all good collaborative albums – those of Massive Attack, for example – the line between producer and artist, guest and star, becomes blurred. What makes Cupid Deluxe great, however, is that it goes one step further, blurring the lines between gay and straight, male and female, native and immigrant, insider and outsider.