Frank Ocean’s new al­bum ‘worth liv­ing with’

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

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.

Pho­tos: AFP, Ap­ple Mu­sic

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.

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