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Cuco goes from nerdy kid to indie-music hero and shatters Latino stereotypes

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When Omar Banos - the Mexican American artist who goes by Cuco - shuffles wordlessly into the lobby of a Bogota hotel in April, he looks like a regular, shy 21-year-old. He has ruffled hair and glasses that give him a nerdy-cool demeanor. Still drowsy from a performance the night before, he mutters a quick "hey" and fidgets with a plastic cup of orange juice.

In just three years, the laid-back and unassuming Cuco has gone from being a hidden jewel of the internet to an indie-music act so promising that he sparked a bidding war among record labels and walked away with a seven-figure deal from Interscope. He's rallied a devout legion of followers, many of them Latino kids in the United States who connect with his stripped-back songs and lyrical millennial moping. He's part-slacker, part-dreamer, part-heartthrob - and the romanticism buried in his woozy, blown-out soundscapes explains why fans spent last February trading Valentine's Day cards with his face on them.

"I wasn't expecting any of this at all," Cuco says of his newfound fame. "When things did start blowing up, I was always just tripping about how it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So it was intense - it's been intense more than anything."

His bullet-speed ascent is partially a result of how much he bares himself to fans, awkward aloofness and all. On Instagram, he broadcasts that he's, as he puts it, "just hella boring," posting bathroom selfies and goofy videos alongside sleek tour images and tender updates. His music is also unabashedly emotional and plain-spoken, igniting a kind of blissed-out, teen wistfulness in listeners. He croons about love and old cars and getting stoned, shaping lo-fi soundtracks that are tailor-made for driving around aimlessly with friends at night.

He usually pours his heart out in Spanglish - a detail that lets him cross cultural worlds. He's an artist clearly planted in the American indie-music scene, but there's a singularity to his work that speaks in particular to children of immigrants in the United States. He laces Chicano iconography into his visuals, makes it a point to perform at immigrant rights' benefits and collaborates with Latin American musicians. (He recently teamed up with Mexican R&B singer Girl Ultra, and he's sprinkled mariachi sounds into a few tracks.)

Yet he's experimental and hard to categorize, making his career feel like something of an escape hatch in an industry that often forces minority artists into particular genres or stereotypes.

"Cuco has really struck that balance of, 'This is who I am, and this is what I sound like,' " says Leila Cobo, Billboard's vice president and Latin industry lead. "It wasn't an artist who had one single, but someone who had built a loyal fan base, and that made him attractive in the long term."

The rush of success occasionally bewilders Cuco. He's excited for everything that's coming - his studio debut, "Para Mi," drops on July 26 - but he finds a dazzling absurdity in the speed at which he's moved from playing backyard shows in Los Angeles to sharing stages with Kenny G and having throngs of fans crowd him at airports, which happened the other day in Peru.

"It's been actually crazy seeing people physically interacting with the music," he says. "When I was in Asia and Europe, seeing people know my stuff word for word - that's crazy. So, it kind of blows my mind a lot of the time, with people messaging me and telling me where they're from. It trips me out."

Cuco initially didn't expect much to come out of his love of music. He grew up the only child of Mexican immigrants in Hawthorne, California, and he began teaching himself guitar when he was about 8 years old. In high school, he experimented with psychedelics and played trumpet in the school marching band to get out of P.E. class. He quickly learned that he was skilled at picking up instruments - the French horn, keyboards, drums and bass - and producing tracks on his laptop.

After graduation, he cracked into the public consciousness by playing Santo & Johnny's "Sleepwalk" on slide guitar in a video that racked up thousands of views. Cuco spent the next few months getting high in his parents' garage and releasing original songs on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, all while halfheartedly attending classes at Santa Monica College. His first mix tape, 2016's "Wannabewithu," featured seven DIY recordings that established his reputation as an emotive and somewhat unlikely indie-music hero.

"He's a hella Cancer," says his manager, a 25-year-old named Doris Muñoz. "He's very emotional, and he opens so many sides of himself to people in his music. And it's all coming from a kid who is very reachable, who seems like someone who goes to class with them. Which he is - he's a marching-band kid who started to trip on acid and discovered (the music software) Ableton."

Cuco's other projects, "Songs4u" and "Chiquito," solidified his sad-sweet sound. But on his full-length album, the music is more experimental, more mature and even a little darker. He has the support of Interscope now, as well as experiences that have come from growing up over the past few years. The album traces recent struggles and traumas, including an accident that sent Cuco and nine of his band mates to the hospital after a tractor-trailer slammed into their tour van in October. Cuco, who had 30 screws and a metal rod inserted into his leg, alludes to the fear and existentialism that the incident triggered in the video for the album's first single, "Hydrocodone." He lies on a bed wearing a full-body cast in one scene and later leads his own funeral procession in Mexico City.

"Some songs were written so long ago, and some were written recently, so there's a huge journey," he says.

Even the name of the project indicates a reflective look inward: The debut's title translates to "For Me."


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