Some of the best music from the past 20 years has come from artists coming off debut success, hungry for more. Guest writer Leo Culp’s The Sophomore Series column looks at 21st century albums that prove the phrase “sophomore slump” is outdated.
Many people can dip into different styles, but very few can thrive in those styles, and still remain uniquely themselves. The Sophomore Series continues, looking at Blood Orange and Vampire Weekend and their relentlessly poppy second albums.
Two of the most mercurial forces in the last twenty years of music, Vampire Weekend and Devonté Hynes (best known for his Blood Orange persona) have built their careers on variety. They might jump between different subject matters, styles, or production philosophies, but each stop is given equal focus. This spirit was established on sophomore albums Contra (2010) and Cupid Deluxe (2013), respectively. Both of these projects look at the album-making process in a unique way, but stay true to, and foster, the curiosities shown on their debuts. Development is not a direct line from first project to second project, but can be something completely unexpected. Cupid Deluxe and Contra show second albums can be side projects, not just continuations of their predecessors. They are places where concepts are turned into experimentation, and experimentation is turned into common practice. Cupid Deluxe and Contra flipped the scripts for these artists, and the end result was two intimate projects that, by focusing inward, expanded the boundaries of their music. Since their sophomore albums, Blood Orange and Vampire Weekend have shown those styles weren’t the new norm, but their experimental blueprints were.
I’ve kept it open
And wanted nobody to be my friend
I’ve wasted moments in the Bowery light
And lost it all
– Blood Orange, “It Is What It Is”
Dev Hynes’ role as a producer/songwriter is vital to how he approaches his solo work. In an interview with NPR, the host refers to Hynes as a “musical shapeshifter”. In a way, this might be a disservice to him. Many people can dip into different styles, but very few can thrive in those styles and still remain uniquely themselves. Hynes has a folk/country persona in the form of Lightspeed Champion, was a member of punk band Test Icicles, and has worked with the likes of Solange, FKA twigs, and A$AP Rocky, to name a few. Hynes isn’t a shapeshifter; he’s a rolling stone, in the best way possible.
Coastal Grooves, the first of five albums for his R&B project Blood Orange, was an attempt to funnel his past styles into a vibey melting pot. But, it had inconsistent success. On many tracks, his risks pay off. On others, it can feel a little forced. Country-sounding slide guitars conflict with some of the bass sounds and punk influences, and punk sounds can go against the pop vibe that otherwise links the project. Coastal Grooves is interesting, though, because it is one of the few times that Hynes has seemed unsure of a specific direction. But Blood Orange’s sophomore project saw him fully realize his R&B persona’s purpose.
With Cupid Deluxe, Hynes takes the best of his past works and infuses it into the existential, yearning spirit of his debut. Lyrics are few and far between, but each syllable seems to hold an enormous amount of weight. It’s as much a conversation as it is an album. He explained this in an interview with Pitchfork, saying, “With Cupid Deluxe, I was trying to make something that was like a mixtape that is given to someone.” The album tells stories of loneliness and longing set to a New York City backdrop. It slips between warm synth sounds and expansive, funky pop seamlessly, and is truly an intimate listening experience. Hynes wanted to create something messy, but cozy at the same time.
Blood Orange’s debut was made with no help from features, but Cupid Deluxe thrives off of its collaborations. It’s a unique version of a producer album, one that sees Hynes elevate his co-stars, rather than himself. It’s reminiscent of a James Brown project. You’ll spend one song talking about the guy on saxophone, and the next talking about the trumpeter, but you come out thinking, “Holy shit James Brown is awesome”. Brown was known for his tenacity, but Hynes is like the good cop to Brown’s bad cop. Asking for more, never demanding. The first time I listened to Cupid Deluxe, I kept opening the Genius app to see who was on each song, making sure to dog-ear their Spotify pages for later. Despite this, though, I left the album annoyed I hadn’t found this world Hynes built sooner. It’s a masterclass in understanding the fine line between too little and too much of a good thing.
While Coastal Grooves was an album by a producer who wanted to show his individuality, Cupid Deluxe shows that Hynes’ unique nature is in his ability to mold to different settings, to different people. Since Blood Orange’s debut, he’s been focused on telling a unique story with each album, using a different style to tell it – Cupid Deluxe to Freetown Sound to Negro Swan to Angel’s Pulse. And that’s important to Hynes. “When I was younger, I wanted to just, like, throw the whole paint can onto the canvas and just see what would happen…Whereas now, I’m kind of enjoying it and exploring the interesting scientific part of it as much as I can, and trying to celebrate it and invite other people to enjoy it.” Music is nothing if not a collective experience. Hynes wants each Blood Orange project to be something produced by many, filled with emotions that make people think it was made just for them.
I had a feeling once
That you and I
Could tell each other everything
For two months
– Vampire Weekend, “I Think You’re A Contra”
Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut is a project filled with quirks and sounds you wouldn’t expect from a bunch of Columbia students. It was maligned for being a knockoff of Paul Simon’s Graceland, and for using Latin and Afropop styles. Some thought Vampire Weekend was appropriating these influences, and could not succeed without them. Their second album, Contra, sought to challenge that idea. Of all of Vampire Weekend’s albums, their first and second are most alike, but only in their poppy atmospheres. They were made in very different ways; the band was ready to cast aside the taste that doubters left in their mouths.
Contra is an album built on rhythm. In an interview for XL Recordings, Rostam Batmanglij, a producer, songwriter, and then-member of Vampire Weekend, said, “We recorded about four or five songs worth of drum tracks. And then we kind of decamped to a home base…and then we started building up from the drum tracks.” Drumming was such an important part of their debut, and it took an even bigger role on Contra. Songs like “California English” and “Cousins” are memorable because their rhythm sections are pushed to the forefront. The Guardian also quoted Batmanglij on the construction of Contra, “There are rules that are so blatantly broken on Contra, like structures of harmony and texture. [But the intention] has been to make the catchiest music we can. Classical music can be catchy, so can African instrumental guitar music. It’s not just pop songs that are catchy. Rhythms can be catchy, too.” Vampire Weekend is nothing if not a catchy album, and Contra is too, but in a completely different way. Every part of the music making process has time in the spotlight. It was about finding a different style, but remaining Vampire Weekend.
In an episode of Song Exploder, front man Ezra Koenig talked about how he approached crafting their albums, saying, “When you are in that early-days period, you think about, ‘What am I interested in now? What is something to be excited about? What kind of music do I want to make?’” Vampire Weekend wants to make albums that explore something new. It’s not about circulating the same sound, it’s about making something different that exists within the same family. In the same interview, Koenig said it is more important to “move forward in a way that still feels like you, but still at least lets people know that the story is not over.” With Contra, the band chopped up and remixed their first album, filtering it through a digital medium. They smoothed it out, and used electronic instruments to expand their soundscape. They fit something completely different in their existing aesthetic.
The concept of “the other” is very apparent while moving through the album. From the title, to the conflicts in the songs, to how the music upends the band’s previous sound, it is centered around how Vampire Weekend is more than their first album, in the best way possible. More musical risks were taken on their sophomore outing, and more care is taken with curating a wholly different pop vibe. They wanted, as Koenig put it, “to have sympathy and compassion, and to be more realistic” with this record. The music had to match the frantic yet sometimes stagnant situations life throws our way. It was controlled development; broadening the boundaries of what could be accomplished, but existing within a defined framework.
Vampire Weekend and Devonté Hynes are the epitome of 21st century artists, molding to new environments and dedicating themselves to specific themes in their creating. In his interview with NPR, Hynes said, “People seem to think that if you do lots of different things over the course of a timeline, it means that you kind of disregard what you did before… But that’s not true of me. I still genuinely like everything I did as much as I liked it when I released it… I see no reason to not just try everything. I feel like we all have such varied tastes, and to not try our tastes is a crime.” Hynes, like Vampire Weekend, has drifted from style to style. But this doesn’t mean they don’t respect their past work.
Contra sought to upend typical musical foundations, and Hynes wanted Cupid Deluxe to be a collaborative, yet intimate experience. This was not just a means to an end, though. Rather, it was just one example of how these artists can mold music in their image. In the words of Koenig, they ask, “What am I interested in now? What is something to be excited about? What kind of music do I want to make?” Asking these questions, and going where the answers take them, push the most interesting ideas forward. Even if sophomore projects are left turns from their debuts, they can still have the same spirit and passion. Cupid Deluxe and Contra do. With each album, listeners can expect something different, something focused, something distinguished, but it always be Blood Orange and Vampire Weekend.
Leo Culp is currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Media/Journalism. He hosts a local radio show in Chapel Hill, and loves watching Liverpool soccer and Carolina basketball. He is always trying to find something new to learn about music, and is a proud Atlantan.
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