Omar Banos, better known as Cuco, makes music defined by youth. From its roots in DIY bedroom pop, to the candid simplicity of his lyricism and his disregard for genre constraints, everything about it is a product of the era that has helped to mold the cohort of internet pop stars to which Cuco belongs. His music is the intersection where bossa nova, lo-fi hip-hop, and bedroom pop meet, and the blend is seamless. He’s a multi-instrumentalist that writes and produces his own songs and strives to maintain creative freedom. In other words, he ticks every required box to endear him to an audience that has grown wary of so-called “industry plants” and values authenticity.
Para Mi opens with a self-deprecating skit by Foos Gone Wild that lambasts Cuco for allegedly selling crystal meth in order to release his debut album before asking the question, “Where is this foo going?” What follows is an album that was crafted after the body of work that would’ve been the foundation of Cuco’s debut was lost in a horrific car accident in Tennessee; an accident that did damage to not only his laptop full of ideas but also to himself and his bandmates.
The answer to the question posed in the intro is that Cuco opts to tread very familiar terrain across the remaining 12 tracks on Para Mi. He cycles through his usual modes of being lovestruck, heartbroken or high, which isn’t to say that the album is lackluster but merely that Cuco chooses to stick to his guns rather than veer off into unexpected sonic territory. Synth-drenched instrumentals are adorned with skittering hi-hats, punchy snares, nimble basslines and angelic harmonies abound. Much like his fellow Hawthorne, California native, Tyler, the Creator, Cuco’s production is an intrinsic part of his artistry. He isn’t forced to operate within the confines of anyone else’s creativity, meaning every crack of a snare, pluck of a nylon string and wail of a synth sounds just as Cuco intended.
“Keeping Tabs” kicks off the album proper. It’s a haze of droning synths and airtight snares that bounces along at a laid back pace. There’s a psychedelic quality to the instrumental that pairs perfectly with the song’s subject matter. It’s an earnest recount of feeling lost and attempting to find solace through experimenting with drugs, with Cuco crooning about needing “some peace of mind” but not knowing where to find it. Whether you’ve been selling out shows since the age of 18, are currently grinding your way through university, or are getting your first taste of full time work, when you’re still young enough to feel like a kid but are on the precipice of adulthood, you begin to ponder life’s questions. Oftentimes you’re faced with the reality that you may never know the answers. Reality can be too much to bear sometimes, and here Cuco escapes it through tripping off tabs in his bedroom.
The degree to which Cuco’s missives detailing infatuation and frustration resonate with you is dependent upon how partial you are to things being kept relatively straight forward. The Jean Carter assisted “Bossa No Sé” features the refrain “I’m pretty sure I hate you/ I’m pretty sure I love you,” and while it isn’t the most nuanced examination of love, it does perfectly encapsulate the whirlwind of conflicting emotions one experiences when besotted with another person. Musically, this song is a beautiful marriage of hip-hop and bossa nova. Cuco is at his best when he is merging the styles pioneered by the culture that birthed him with more contemporary sounds.
Arguably, the album does feature one too many interludes, which is likely a result of Cuco indulging in the album format; it’s a ballpark he’s yet to bat in and it’s understandable that he’d want to make the most of it, but the inclusion of “Brokey the Pear” and “Room Tone” negatively impacts the sequencing, stalling the flow of the album somewhat.
Para Mi closes with “Do Better,” a decidedly lo-fi acoustic number and the only song on the album that sees Cuco flit between English and Spanish. It’s a wistful song that embodies the overarching ethos of the album. Cuco isn’t reaching for anything far removed from what has already been proven to work, he adheres to the woozy sounds that won over audiences in the first place and the results are what you would expect, a laid back album packed with head bobbing grooves and lovestruck sentiment. The album is a continuation of what Cuco was doing when he had a gaggle of teens singing every word in someone’s backyard, so it seems that the answer to where he is going is hidden in the translation of the album’s title; wherever feels right for him.