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'Para Mi' review: Cuco's ambitious major-label debut

Cuco's "Para Mi" is on Interscope Records.

Cuco's "Para Mi" is on Interscope Records. Credit: Interscope Records

CUCO

"Para Mi"

BOTTOM LINE The lo-fi pop phenom makes ambitious major-label debut

Cuco — the stage name for 21-year-old singer-songwriter Omar Banos — touched off a major-label bidding war with his string of self-produced, self-released EPs and mixtapes.

His lo-fi sound was charming and nerdy, emotionally raw and musically slick, mixing his Mexican-American heritage with a love of indie-rock. All of that continues on his debut “Para Mi” for Interscope Records, which reportedly landed him with a seven-figure deal.

But Cuco is clearly still growing as an artist. And the musical simplicity and emotional directness that made his early songs like “Dontmakemefallinlove” so irresistible have been replaced by a broader, more ambitious vision that feels intellectually heftier, but also less immediate.

Maybe that was inevitable following his whirlwind success, as well as a serious traffic accident last year that put him and nine of his bandmates and crew into the hospital, leaving him with a metal rod in his leg. The album’s hazy first single “Hydrocodone” deals with the emotional and physical pain /of the accident and ends abruptly in a simulated computer glitch, as he sings, “All my hope is gone.”

Cuco finds inspiration in both “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys and bossa nova and other Latin rhythms, bending both to suit his artistic purposes.

He fares best on songs like “Best Friend,” a dreamy, Brazilian-tinged number that gets ratcheted up by his spiraling intensity about his mistakes and his quest for forgiveness. “I know I’ve been quite dumb,” he croons. “But baby, we’re quite young.”

“Bossa No Se” is the equally potent flip side, where Cuco and rapper Jean Carter team up for an angry kiss-off. He pairs some lilting bossa nova guitar with a trap beat and spacey synths to signify his confusion. “I don’t know if I love you,” he sings over the odd combination. “I don’t know if I hate you, baby.”

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With “Para Mi,” Cuco establishes himself as a bright new star, one with plenty of room to grow.

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