Sunday, October 02, 2016

Frank Ocean Goes Deep

It's profound. It's profane. It's a benediction. It's an indictment. It's intimate. It's universal. It's pop. It's art. It's soulful. It's icy. It's carnal. It's cerebral. It's wickedly funny. It's as serious as your life. Frank Ocean's Blonde (or Blond?) is all of these things, and more, and it's on the top of the charts. After a four year wait, which drove some corners of the Internet to the breaking point, we finally have a follow up to Channel Orange and it is brilliant, exceeding my expectations in every way. 

Part of the reason I love Blond is that it makes fewer concessions than Channel Orange to R&B, the genre to which it supposedly belongs. For one thing, half the songs have no drums, and on the ones that do, the percussion comes and goes. For another, guitars are the most prominent instrument - next to Oceans's glorious voice, of course. Ivy, for example, feels rich and fully realized despite just being voices accompanied by two tracks of heavily processed electric guitars. It works so well mainly due to the sophistication of Ocean's melodies, which combine with his poetic lyrics to make an intoxicating cocktail of a song. Then there's the end of the song, where he makes a hook out of a little vocal phrase that would seem bizarre if it didn't feel so good. 

The length of time between albums might imply a lack of confidence but much of Blonde is incredibly bold, including all of the different things he does with his voice. Considering that his gifts as a singer put him in the same league as Stevie Wonder (believe it), his lack of veneration for his instrument is refreshing. He pitches it up, distorts it, talks through parts of songs, and, in general, could care less about impressing you. This makes the moments when he lets rip, like the wordless passages in Solo, that much more astonishing. 

Lyrically, he's gotten bolder as well. Consider Skyline To, which kicks off like a Frank Loesser song ("This is joy, this is summer...") and then, as a reflective jazz guitar shimmers in the background, turns strikingly conversational. "That's a pretty fucking fast year flew by," he says, speaking plainly, "that's a pretty long third gear in this car, gliding on the Five, deer run across, killed the headlights," he continues in a stream of consciousness. He keeps talking: "Pretty fucking under moonlight, now, pretty fucking...sunrise in sight" - he sings the last word and we're back on Broadway - "then comes the morning hunting us with the beams, solstice ain't as far as it used to be, it begins to blur, we get older, summer's not as long as it used to be, every day counts like crazy." 

This is compressed language, heightened but completely relatable, and, in the context of a 2:37 pop song, amazing. Throw in subtexts about  sexual encounters and the effects of the drug trade on the Congo, and his achievement is  elevated from the pop realm into that of the literary. Synth clouds and squiggles float in, Ocean begins to harmonize with himself and heaven is not too strong a word for the sensation of listening. And this is just one song, picked almost at random. One day monographs and graduate essays will be written exploring the treasures of Blonde - for now, I'll just keep browsing Genius

Skyline To also continues some of the main themes of Blonde, the cut-adrift sensation of getting older, being on your own, answering only to yourself but desperate for connection, coping with work, self-worth and technology. "I may be younger, but I'll take care of you," he sings in Nikes, the opening cut (don't miss the video), a come-on to a one night stand whose glow lasts long in the lives of both people involved. The spoken word interludes also play off of these strains. Be Yourself is a voicemail from a friend's mom imploring her son not to drink or do drugs "unless under a doctor's control,"and signing off, unnecessarily: "This is mom. Call me." 

Facebook Story is an anecdote told by Sebastian, one of Blonde's producers, about a woman who left him after three years because he wouldn't accept her friend request. "I'm in front of you," he told her, "I don't need to accept you on Facebook." These snippets speak volumes about helicopter parenting and the perils of social media - issues that don't only weigh on millennials, I can assure you. Frank Ocean has straight up become the voice of more than one generation, all the while remaining an artist of great intimacy. 

A word about collaborations. Guests and samples can sink an album under the weight of misplaced star power or references that are too clever by half. No worries on Blonde - Ocean is in total command. Luminaries such as BeyoncĂ©, Kendrick Lamar, Jonny Greenwood and Kim Burrell are here, along with a children's choir and samples of everyone from Gang of Four and Elliott Smith to The Beatles themselves. However, everything is beautifully woven into a distinctive tapestry that could belong to no one else. If any collaborator deserves to become better known based on Blonde, it would be Om'Mas Keith, who has songwriting and production credits on 11 songs on the album.

The one song where Ocean takes a backseat is Solo (Reprise), a full-on feature by Andre 3000 of OutKast, who speed-raps over a soulful piano and arty synths. Depending on my mood, I vacillate between joy that someone was able to get Three Stacks in front of a microphone to feeling like it's an intrusion. I've heard it's a two year old recording so I'll chalk up its inclusion to the diaristic structure of the album, which makes a palpable presence of all the living Ocean has done since Channel Orange came out.

Considering that Blonde is a vessel for four years of emotions and creativity, I hope everyone who snapped up this album invests their own time to let it unfold in their hearts. Blonde is an unconventional, deeply felt, and organically original work of art. There's much more I could say about its mysteries but I'd rather let you discover them on your own. And, Frank - feel free to take your time on the next record. A gem like Blonde is well worth the wait. 

Note: Two days before Blonde came out, Frank Ocean released a "visual album" called Endless that featured a soundtrack of all new music. It is only available to watch and listen to if you subscribe to Apple Music, a sub-par service that I tried several months ago. From what I understand, Endless was a clever move on Ocean's part to finish out his Def Jam contract and allow him to put out Blonde independently. That suggests that he saved the best music for Blonde and, based on what I've heard from tinny-sounding bootleg MP3's, that is indeed the case. If and when Endless is released in a conventional fashion I will be happy to give it full consideration in a future review.

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