In 2016, singer-songwriter Omar Banos went viral when he posted a video of himself playing a slide-guitar version of Santo and Johnny’s 1958 surf instrumental classic “Sleepwalk.” Recording under the moniker Cuco, the Mexican-American artist maintained the buzz by releasing his own psychedelia-soaked love ballads; sung in Spanglish, and underscored by trap beats, his songs struck a chord with young Latinx listeners. When Interscope granted Cuco a unique seven-figure deal, offering complete ownership of his output, there seemed to be only sunny skies ahead. But on his debut LP, Para Mí, the 21-year-old starts from rock bottom.
First, there was the harrowing car accident that saw Cuco hospitalized, and sequestered for months in his family home in Hawthorne, California. He later discovered that his laptop, containing most of what would have been his debut record, was damaged in the crash; hooked on hydrocodone, and whatever else he could get his hands on, Cuco painstakingly rewrote and recorded much of Para Mí from his sickbed.
The resulting 13 tracks encapsulate a world that’s just as isolated. The happy-go-lucky Cuco we came to know through songs like 2018’s “Summer Time High Time” or 2016’s “Amor de Siempre” is all but eclipsed by the id. “So lonely, will somebody come and help?/I’m rotting in the image of my head,” he sings in the Rundgren-esque highlight “Far Away From Home.” And in the day-tripping “Ego Death in Thailand,” he sings distantly, “Take this and fly away/Till the substance numbs the pain” — grasping for contact as he descends into an arpeggiated synth spiral. As a dedicated scholar of Tame Impala, Tyler, the Creator, quiet storm–era R&B and bossa nova, Cuco transmutes various pop methodologies to create his own blend of burnout soul.
Yet his lyrics aren’t always as baked as his brain: Take the unsparing “Stupid bitch you came from hell” in the trap-icalia hybrid “Bossa No Sé,” or the grating chorus of “Smoking broken windows/Playing my Nintendo” in “Keeping Tabs.” (Coupled with the album intro, featuring cholo humorists Foos Gone Wild, it’s a nod to the working-class SoCal that helped cultivate Cuco’s brand of freakishness.)
Still, Cuco offsets his boyish penchant for meth jokes with stellar craftsmanship. A musical polyglot, he intuits just what warbling Casiotone feature or guitar trill will level up his Muzak interludes — which ring more profound than some of its neighboring, melodramatic iMessage confessionals. The clouds finally part in the closing comedown track, “Do Better”; “Baby, I’ve gotta do better for you,” he admits earnestly. Para Mí makes for a noble first try.