Frank Ocean’s new album ‘worth living with’
FRANK Ocean seems to like to look chaotic, even slapdash. This long-teased album’s eventual release as an Apple Music stream was announced on his Tumblr with a post that read: “FUCK, SORRY.. I TOOK A NAP, BUT IT’S PLAYING ON APPLE RADIO RN.”
It’s titled Blonde online and in his Boys Don’t Cry magazine, which accompanies the release, but Blond on the album CD artwork – which also manages to misspell “Elliot [sic] Smith” (Ocean borrows the entire chorus of Smith’s “Fond Farewell” for his track “Siegfried”). Sonically, there’s no dramatic shift from Endless, the “visual album” that appeared just two days ago: indeed it could be a continuation of that album. It’s a very subdued record: The melodies meander, more often than not without drums, and snatches of dialogue and weird electronic glitches interrupt conventional-seeming parts. Seven of the 17 tracks are under the threeminute mark.
There’s a rap verse in Japanese at the end of “Nikes”. One might be tempted on first hearing to think that the tangled and overlong creative process has got the better of Ocean, and that he’s just released a hodge-podge of more or less finished ideas.
It only takes a couple of plays to put paid to that suspicion. Another of Ocean’s Tumblr posts reads “THANK YOU ALL. ESPECIALLY THOSE OF YOU WHO NEVER LET ME FORGET I HAD TO FINISH. WHICH IS BASICALLY EVERY ONE OF YA’LL.” Once you’re immersed in it, it becomes abundantly clear he’s taken this seriously, and this very much is a finished album. It’s a carefully structured album to boot: The segue from “Be Yourself”, constructed from a concerned phone message from Ocean’s mother, into “Solo”, an intensely affecting song about drugged paralysis, is just the most obvious example. Elsewhere it flows in subtle ways from one track to the next, an inexorable sense of a narrative being spun out but never spelled out.
It’s a complicated, indulgent, moody record, though, one that deals in textures and impressions more than in pop hooks and instant thrills.
Its superstar guest spots are woven into the textures, not signposted: Beyoncé, for example, just adds wordless harmonising to the adolescent memories of “Pink + White”, and Kendrick Lamar’s contribution to “Skyline To” is as a writer and producer, with his voice only appearing as a few cryptic, barked ad-libs. Guitars ripple throughout, some of which are certainly Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood; any that are not are certainly beholden to him.
James Blake appears on the credits, where he is on the record it’s impossible to tell, though his influence is everywhere.
The only person who really leaps out is Outkast’s André 3000, verbally somersaulting over a minute of bleeps and jazz piano on “Solo (Reprise)”, but even he doesn’t break the mood.
It’s precisely that consistency of mood that brings together all the seeming weirdness into something extraordinarily listenable as a complete piece.
When detuned guitar arpeggios suddenly take over the track then collapse into electronic glitch, in the episodic “Nights”, or when robot voices intrude on the otherwise Bill Withers-like guitar-and-vocal ballad “Self Control”, they’re not gimmicks or attempts to be modern: Once you’re in Frank Ocean world, they seem completely natural.
We’re seeing the maturation of a few trends of the last few years. The indiefication of hiphop culture, which had its most mainstream expression with the bromance between Jay-Z and Chris Martin, and saw every other mainstream rap/R&B tune have a moaning white guy chorus for a while, is here expressed in infinitely more musically- and emotionally-sophisticated form. Likewise the weird electronic side of “alt-R&B” – the dialogue between black American culture and British bedroom experimentalists like Blake and the xx – is subsumed elegantly into Ocean’s writing and recording process.
Under all the subtlety and still surfaces, there are actually hooks here – just not the needy, salesmanlike kind that wave at you, shouting, “Here I am, remember this song!” The melodies – not only on the swaying soul waltz of “Pink + White”, or the tick-tock melody of the conventional R&B sections of “Night”, but also in the outer-space balladry of “Siegfried” and the future gospel crawl of the heartbreaking “Godspeed” – lodge very quickly in the memory and stay there.
And there are single moments like the way Ocean hollers “I’m not brave!” in “Siegfried” that can stop you in your tracks. Once these musical elements are in your subconscious, a complicated set of ideas starts to unfold.
Among all the immediate autobiographical and introspective themes of weed, cars, women, men, consumerism, growing up and responsibility, are all kinds of complex wordplay, and references to Shakespeare and Teutonic myth, but as with everything these are subtly done.
They don’t clang into the songs as signals of bourgeois erudition, but slide in, signposting more and deeper themes which will only become apparent as we live with the album.
And yes, it’s true: This is going to be an album worth living with.
Frank Ocean attends the “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in May 2014. His new album Blond (inset) is available on iTunes.