Over the course of a handful of self-recorded EPs and singles, Cuco (born Omar Banos) earned a reputation for his sweet Spanglish love songs that eagerly melted Brazilian bossa nova with Atlanta’s trap scene, managing to stand out in a field of Mac Demarco lookalikes in the process. With painfully earnest lyrics like “Lost in the words that you say to me / Y pasando tiempo juntos is the ultimate dream” on 2017’s breakout single “Lo Que Siento,” combined with Demarco’s oddball sense of humor—his Spotify bio reads “PLS TELL PAPA JOHNS TO STOP SEASONING MY PIZZA WITH SULFURIC ACID”—Cuco swept fans off their feet with a disarming ease, leading to the 21 year-old artist’s staggeringly fast ascent to full-blown Gen Z heartthrob status.
But that take-it-or-leave-it charm isn’t exactly present on Cuco’s major-label debut Para Mi. The album shows some growing pains for a talented artist that’s maybe a bit too stuck in horny adolescence, trapping great songs behind a regrettable tendency toward overproduction that turn Cuco’s formerly charming impulses into something much more grating. In his defense, Cuco seems to be going through some shit; lyrics like “I been off it like a prophet, ain’t no tellin’ why / Can you blame me, baby, for the fact that I just lost my mind?” often reflect a drug dependency in the wake of recent heartbreak, but sometimes the acid-addled bars read more like hollow braggadocio. There are some lovely songs on Para Mi, though; you might just have to slog through some unfortunate synths and occasionally cringe-inducing lyrics to get there.
The maximalist approach to production is often baffling. The worst offender is “Perihelion (Interlude),” a two-and-a-half minute-long instrumental that sounds like Cuco passed out and landed face-down on his synth in the middle of an acid trip. That track leads into “Feelings,” which starts to course correct from its interlude with a sensual bass line and seductive harmonies only to have over-processed horns and shimmeringly ugly synths kill the mood right after the chorus. “Far Away From Home” would be a great lovelorn piano ballad if a Joe Satriani-worshipping guitar solo didn’t appear halfway through.
It doesn’t help that Cuco seems more interested in the libidinal effects of hallucinogens than he does winning back the girl he lost. Sometimes the references to drugs feel forced—and maybe even a bit self-sabotaging—as is the case on the admittedly groovy “Keeping Tabs,” which has Cuco ghosting his partner with the rapped refrain “Take another tab and now a set of shrooms / No don’t hit my line baby, girl who are you.” That track’s sludgy b-side is “Love Tripper,” which finds Cuco begging likely the same lover to stick around while he tries to piece himself back together.
“Ego Death In Thailand” is the best of the drug jams, mechanizing the noxious qualities of “Perihelion” and “Love Tripper” into a self-conscious and anxious meditation on Cuco’s codependent relationship. Though lyrically heavy-handed—“It’s been oh so long / The world is ending, it’s so wrong / Take this and find your way / ‘Til the substance numbs the pain” doesn’t leave much to interpretation—the song’s tactile and superb percussion locks listeners into a rewarding wave.
When Cuco steps back from the aforementioned over-production and embraces his love for bossa nova, Para Mi shines. “Best Friend” is a particular delight, melting an airily plucked guitar line and warm drums with a trap beat. Cuco owns up to his mistakes on the song, asking for forgiveness with the earnestness he built his name on, crooning bars like “Do you know, how it feels / To be a fiend, for someone / That you love, but to be / Such a klutz, what the fuck?” with characteristic charm. The same is true of album closer “Do Better,” which trades the gloss of the album’s front half for lo-fi fuzz reminiscent of early Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
It’s a shame that these great songs come so late on the Para Mi’s sequencing, as the early run of saturated synth duds might repel listeners. Heartbreak is hard, though, and this might just be the first time Cuco’s gone through one so challenging. On both an empathetic and aesthetic level, Para Mi will make you hope that Cuco can handle it better in the future.