Every year I get a little more used to the fact that the great majority of our pop culture is not created with me in mind. Queer people interested in connecting with the world around them learn quickly to find bits of it that they can transform into something of their own: a statement of pride, a piece of glamour, a declaration of eternal love. But recent developments in the mainstream popularity of LGBT rights have muddied the waters: artists can now piggyback their way to success on messages of equality packaged neatly for straight audiences. This brings up uncomfortable questions about authorial intent and patronization. For every “I’m Coming Out” or “Thinkin’ Bout You,” you can point to a “Firework” or “Born This Way” or “Same Love,” and while those in the latter group may represent more benefits than burdens in a broad sense, they begin to feel like pandering condescension on their 10th and 100th and 1,000th plays. I’ve become more cynical about pop music in this way; it takes something special for me to let my guard down, especially if it’s coming from an artist who doesn’t identify as queer. One album that broke through those defenses this year was Cupid Deluxe, British pop-R&B artist Dev Hynes’ second album as Blood Orange.
Hynes doesn’t identify as gay — in fact, his girlfriend, vocalist Samantha Urbani, performs on over half of Cupid Deluxe’s 11 tracks. But his music and lyrics have a fluidity that allows queer listeners to connect rather than infer connection without Hynes himself pushing a forced “gay anthem,” and his interaction with the subject is remarkably respectful, almost reverent. This isn’t something new for the singer; Hynes’ first album as Blood Orange, 2011’s Coastal Grooves, was dedicated to the trans performer Octavia St. Laurent, who was featured in the seminal 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.
Hynes has also spoken at length about the inspiration he derives from the queer culture of decades past, and more specifically the ball culture that sprung out of New York City in the 1980s. (Like this, from an interview that ran in design magazine Apartamento’s November 2012 issue: “I’m just in awe of the early 80s gay culture in New York — the ball culture, what they created, how they expressed themselves… imagine how difficult it would have been to be black and gay, or black and transgender 30 years ago in New York. They had so much against them, but they managed to create something so beautiful. I find that bravery really inspiring.”) Even Hynes’ sexuality manages to defy expectations tied to the standard gay/straight binary: He dabbled in gay sex as a teen before deciding it didn’t take, and discussed his attraction to trans women in an April interview with Slutever, couching the conversation in concepts that are a little more nuanced than a straightforward comparison of bits and bobs.
How does Hynes incorporate that nuance into the world of Cupid Deluxe? As Ryan Dombal pointed out in his Pitchfork review, there’s an obvious reference in the title of one of the album’s highlights, “Uncle ACE,” named for the New York City subway lines that share the IND Eighth Avenue Line through Midtown Manhattan. The trains, which run from the northern reaches of Manhattan through to the furthest reaches of Queens, have been given the titular nickname by NYC’s homeless youth, many of whom identify as queer. It’s a thoughtful hat tip, one that betrays a little more depth than your standard vague pop star platitudes about equality and freedom, and it’s given voice by a sparky little funk riff and lyrics that allude to trans prostitution, fear, and emotional hollowness: “Not like the other girls / Go home and wait for me / I’ll be there after 5 / The others got that V.” But Hynes has more impressive tricks up his sleeve, as he transcends direct reference by making skillful use of theme, structure, and sound on the rest of Cupid Deluxe to honor queerness in a tender, touching way.
It all starts with the voices — both his own and those of his collaborators. Hynes typically sings in a high, soft falsetto; his notes catch in your ear like little exhalations or tiny gusts of wind, breathy and quickly gone. He’s especially skilled when it comes to conveying vulnerability, fear, or a certain vein of bittersweet, mildly pained longing, and those are the moods that dominate Cupid Deluxe. One of the best examples of this is on “High Street,” his collaboration with British rapper Skepta. Hynes sings, “Racing down Ilford Lane, going home / Thinkin’ bout, ‘should I try to fake a fall?’” and in his whisper you can feel his eyes flashing back over his shoulder, checking on some approaching menace. It’s a fear many gay men know well: walking from boys’ bars to catch the train or bus home, speeding past crowded college hangouts with our partners, steeling ourselves as drunk bros stage whisper about the faggots a few feet away. It’s a fear that demands preemptive measures.
Hynes’ use of the other voices on Cupid Deluxe is also telling. Romantic involvement and vocal chemistry aside, Urbani is rarely presented as a partner on this record, or at least not a happy one; on many songs, like “No Right Thing” and “It Is What It Is,” she seems like more of an older, wiser sister or friend than a lover, and when she’s placed in the latter role, it’s on the vicious kiss-off “You’re Not Good Enough” and breakup ballad “Always Let U Down.” The duet roles that possess any real sexual tension are reserved for men: Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth appears on the soaring “No Right Thing,” and British singer-songwriter Adam Bainbridge (of Kindness) performs on the second-half sparkler “On the Line.” The sentiments on these songs are a little more ambiguous than on those featuring Urbani: When Hynes and Bainbridge go back and forth with questions like, “Tell me, baby, are you mine? / Is our love on the line?” it’s ripe with confusion and lust.
But I didn’t truly understand the threads running through Cupid Deluxe until I saw Dev Hynes dance. Like many other intent listeners, I’m often guilty of underrating movement as a medium of expression, but I can still remember my reaction upon watching the video for the teardrop-inducing album closer “Time Will Tell” for the first time: slumped in my desk chair, slack-jawed, totally stunned. He’s dressed like an angel but he might as well be naked; his body pours into space like liquid, his limbs shoot and snap like little whips. (The video was choreographed by the Brooklyn movement consultant Juri Onuki.) Hynes is playing in a minimally adorned room — there isn’t much more than a white piano and a red chair — that’s lined with windows and mirrors. He rocks back and forth on the piano bench, pounding the keys and staring straight ahead with unflinching intensity, until he’s ultimately compelled to slide from his seat and move. When he does, it lacks any semblance of vanity or self-consciousness; his moves are flamboyant, mostly independent of time, seemingly motivated solely by impulse. He isn’t performing for anyone but himself. I know that kind of dancing, I recognize his moves: It’s the way I dance for my boyfriend before we go to bed, when I’ve had a few drinks and I’m trying to make him laugh; it’s the way I move and touch myself in my skinny wall mirror when no one is watching and Ciara’s “Body Party” is on the stereo, divorced from sex and expectations. There’s a raw sweetness and a femininity to that kind of motion, qualities that men are taught to keep under wraps, to keep private. Hynes taps into it immediately and drags it out right before our eyes.
And then there are the lyrics, which he improvised by pulling scraps from his own “It Is What It Is” and a song by Adam Bainbridge — every line is a mantra that pulses with hope and longing. It’s a calming, patient anthem: “Time will tell if you can figure this and work it out / No one’s waiting for you anyway, so don’t be stressed out / Even if it’s something that you’ve had your eye on / It is what it is.” And later, delivered by Hynes in a pained moan: “Come into my bedroom / Come into my bedroom / Come into my bedroom.” He performs with the pent-up lust of a closeted teenager in one breath and the patience of an older, smarter man in the next, and he seems to understand how those extremes rage within all of us, jockeying for position with every new second.
My open-armed embrace of Hynes’ work begs the question: Why does his invocation of the queer experience and associated themes seem to transcend the sort of cloying appropriation that bothers many of us in the hands of Macklemore, or Gaga, or Katy Perry? It’s tough to say — everyone responds differently to this sort of thing. Speaking personally, I think Hynes connects with me in a way that others don’t because I don’t feel like I’m being used as a means to an end. In different hands, references to gay culture are less about appreciation and respect for the creativity, resilience, and spirit of our cultural ancestors and more of a statement about the artist: their good intentions, their political posture, their trendy taste. Gay men and women are transformed from real people with stories, attitudes and lives into pawns in a game of social posturing and messages. With his deft touch, respectful pen, and palpable personal investment, Hynes’ interaction with queerness is infused with a color and richness that many of his peers sorely lack, and that special feel made Cupid Deluxe one of my favorite pieces of the musical world this year.