“Where is this foo going?” —Cuco, “Intro”
Cuco opens his major-label debut album, Para Mi, with a cheeky self-interrogation. Before we get to the music, we learn that the 21-year-old California native has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Beneath his jokes lies an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. It’s an emotion that’s come through prior—look no further than his throbbing 2017 work Songs4u. Then, his bedroom pop had a tender and obsessive touch, one that reminded us of his youth and also his immense potential.
From dropping out of school to connecting with droves of fans, Cuco has come a long way. The uncertainty of Para Mi breathes and bites. From vacillating love song (“Bossa No Sé”) to spacey and crumbling interlude (“Perihelion”), anxiety permeates this equally bedroom-spun debut. Cuco uses Para Mi to find his footing, but more specifically, he uses Para Mi to show us just how little footing we have. His humanity flourishes in these teetering spaces.
Returning to the opening quote, we have to wonder, is Cuco joking at all? Overwhelmingly, the answer is: No. Cuco is deadly serious.
As Para Mi ambles and twists, writhes beneath languishing synths and pools of chords, with vocals basting the project like a finely reduced sauce, we feel as if we are floating. Cuco does not create a universe so much as he throws us into the void of his emotions. He hopes we’ve brought the necessary tools to withstand his emotive ramblings. The album is not lost in the traditional sense. Far better, the album is true to Cuco’s post-car-crash ethos of giving yourself over to feelings. In Cuco’s world, there is no need to define an emotion; the only imperative is to live.
In this context, Para Mi is a triumph. Cuco is fearless in his fearfulness. On the second verse of the dreamy “Feelings,” Cuco is awash in loneliness and the pursuit of contentment: “A knock on my door, I wonder who it could be / The reflection of one, it’s everyone here but me / Flew right by my eyes, the essence of company / I’m lost in desire, but now, I can feel at ease.” There’s a magical realism to his writing, one that leaves us questioning the setting and narrator. We look to the hook (“It’s the truth / I gotta find my way back home”) for answers, but the truth is: Cuco’s meanings are mixed. There’s a purposeful lack of clarity to his writing that we must admire for the simple fact that Cuco himself is unsure.
The beauty of Para Mi lies in Cuco’s uncanny ability to capture uncertainty and give it bodily form. Missteps and stumbles wax and wane on this album. Jitters and doubts weave and harden into the backbone of Para Mi, with Cuco admitting “I just need someone to guide me” on “Keeping Tabs.” We could fall back and assume he’s talking about a guide for acid, or we can take this lyric as the cry of truth that it is: We’re all so lost.
Cuco makes uncertainty and loss of self feel essential on “Ego Death In Thailand.” In a piercing falsetto tone, Cuco bemoans falling in love again, with the codependency and gnawing need for another stripping him of his personhood. It’s on the second verse that his magical realist tendencies return and we relate to him: “Wake up losing my mind / Let the liquid dream drip down my spine / Don’t look away, look through my eyes / Every breath you take, another part of me dies.” Immobilized by an uncertain love, Cuco is both pleading and resigned. The music sounds like a deep and knowing sigh; the chord progressions in particular reek of exhaustion and emotional weight.
We’re as unsure as Cuco is on “Ego Death In Thailand.” There are so many pertinent details missing—Who is this lover? Why don’t they love Cuco back? Why does he crave them so?—and yet the imagery of the verse is so potent. A dripping dream, and dying wish for love, it’s all so tangible and yet there is nary an answer on the cut—it naturally fades out. Rather than play as an unsatisfying offering, this feels like Cuco admitting that he is just as lost in his feelings as we are experiencing the cut. He's not withholding; he’s being real with us.
Later, on “Far Away From Home,” Cuco laments once more. The uncertainty of love and the wobbly definition of home leaves him dead and rotting (“So lonely, will somebody come and help? / I’m rotting in the image of my head”). Cuco admits he does not know where home would be, but he feels tethered to place nonetheless. The track mimics the maddening sensation of pining with all your spirit after something shapeless. On the whole, Para Mi captures the feeling of wanting that sprouts from the bone marrow and overtakes the body, the mind, and the soul in one swoop.
It’s only on “Do Better” that Cuco—and the listener—finds his footing. Where on “Far Away From Home” we were waking up alone and without a sense of place, “Do Better” features certainty of location—next to a lover—that feels more tangible than the previous begs for a requited love. The depth of warmth on the plucking guitar and the sandy drums give the song its body. While the majority of Para Mi feels adrift, “Do Better” has an earthy tone and sonic quality. Perhaps this is why we believe Cuco when he says he’ll be a better man; why we believe him when he paints another scant picture of a potential lover. He sings it himself: His heart is in this one.
Much of Para Mi takes place on a janky and shifting plane. Yet, Cuco never wastes a minute grappling with uncertainty; he lives it. The album submerges us in a sea of doubt and yearning, but we find comfort in the undertow. These are not choppy waters, but rather a calm body of work. Cuco presents uncertainty as a matter of fact on Para Mi, rather than something to be feared. He embraces his range of emotions, living his pain, and tunneling through his truth—the only way out is through. With that, we have the answer to the album’s opening question. This foo is going upwards to better days.