Frank Ocean ‘Endless’ / ‘Blonde’ – Review

29 Aug

In the 1990s, highly anticipated albums were birthed with meticulous planning; a gradual roll out of singles and stealth marketing. Remember the queues going around the block for Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ or Michael Jackson’s ‘Invincible’? Remember the displays in record stores? But ‘Blonde’, Frank Ocean’s eagerly awaited new release, was exhaled quietly in to the summer air, late one evening. Upon listening to the album it’s easy to see why Ocean took this strategy. Everything about ‘Blonde’ is understated, unfussy and laid back without ever being entirely chill. A thoughtful minimalism prevails. Over half of the songs lack any kind of percussion, many don’t make it to the two minute mark. Bass, rhythm and anything looking like a dance friendly tempo, are largely absent.

This initially makes ‘Blonde’ a disappointing album, not to mention a confusing one. This is not how we’ve been conditioned to hear blockbuster releases, particularly ones by r&b singers. But of course Frank Ocean is so much more than that. A kind of parallel could be drawn with Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’. There were a band who derailed conventional wisdom, following an acclaimed record and gained tremendous kudos for doing so. But with ‘Kid A’ Radiohead were concerned with deconstructing their art, which meant distorting vocals, synthesising guitars and fizzing drums in to mesmerising pops and clicks. Frank Ocean, in contrast, isn’t interesting in layering, deconstructing, masking or distorting either his art or voice. He strips back, he opens up, he performs as bluntly and vulnerably as is possible and then he records it pretty much as is. The exception is the disarming and unrepresentative album opener and lead single ‘Nikes’. Here Frank’s vocal is pitch distorted to a near comical level as he delivers a kind of stream of conscious take down of modern society. It’s the only overtly political track on the album, as well as the most contemporary sounding one.

Let’s not forget that ‘Channel Orange’ was itself an unexpected, and challenging, proposition after the hit heavy and somewhat streamlined ‘Nostalgia Ultra’. ‘Channel Orange’ in contrast awed us with its maximalism. Lengthy songs that spun stories out of modern myth paralleled with ancient legends. Unusual song structures tempered with soulful arrangements, hypnotically woozy melodies and unexpected interludes. There were confessional unravellings but they were placed in between the grander narratives; arresting in their honesty but paced between character studies of Cleopatra, drug pushers and faded rock stars it felt almost like Frank was hiding in plain sight. There is nowhere to hide on ‘Blonde’. He’s let go of anything putting a distance between himself and personal revelation. Metaphors, imagery, narratives, form and devices to aid clarity or mystery are almost completely absent. These lyrics are freewheeling, uncensored and entirely unburdened by craft.

A couple of days before ‘Blonde’, Frank released another singular statement of intent, designed to deflate expectation or stoke it’s fires, depending on who you believe. ‘Endless’ is a ‘visual album’ featuring short, lo-if musings over images of Frank building a spiral staircase. As a visual work of art it’s seriously lacking – a thin metaphor executed without much obvious enthusiasm – but as a musical piece it’s insightful. On the day of release it was unclear what purpose ‘Endless’ served but it now seems certain that it’s the artsy, uncompromising sibling of ‘Blonde’ and a sounding board for Ocean’s more experimental urges. The songs are avant-garde sketches that barely ever raise the pulse but do feature arresting half-raps, skitty beats and futuristic sounds (things missing from ‘Blonde’). The idea of it is more memorable than the thing itself – I can’t imagine many people listening to it, let alone watching it, more than once. Yet it features a couple of songs that are better than anything on ‘Blonde’. His cover of The Isley Brothers ‘At Your Best’ is beyond gorgeous. Frank sings the sublime melody with such grace, over a luscious Jonny Greenwood string arrangement and James Blake synth. ‘Rushes’ is another stand out, notable for sounding like a fully formed idea played out with compositional forethought. It also predicts a major theme of ‘Blonde’: nostalgia.

Frank ocean has cast his eye to the past before of course – his debut wasn’t called ‘Nostalgia Ultra’ for nothing. Here his reflections on the past are informed by regret and sadness but those feelings are generally usurped by romanticised nostalgia. In his past life he chose sadness and unfulfilled romantic desire over happiness. This has been the same choice reluctantly or unconsciously made by romantics for centuries (you can see why he thought of naming the album ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ – Robert Smith would be proud of these lyrics). He wallows in his regret because it facilities artistic growth and gives a perverse kind of satisfaction. On the spine tinglingly pretty ‘Ivy’, he sings about mistakes and missed opportunities, but you can hear the joyous longing when he says ‘we’ll never be those kids again.’

Perhaps Ocean is simply remembering a time when he had control. Ok, he made poor decisions that he came to regret but they were his decisions to make. Black lives in 2016 are characterised by a lack of control and choice. As he puts it on the very next track, the soulful ‘Black and Pink’, “everytime we have no control”. The song ends with him singing ‘remember life, remember how it was.’ When the present is dark, the past is often the first retreat.

So over the rest of the album Frank delves further and further in to memory. Usually his memories are of the summer and usually they revolve around unrequited love or and epiphany of disappointment. The world is not what we think it is as children. ‘Summer’s not as long as it used to be’. There are lyrical allusions to weed smoke, and sometimes stronger mind bending drugs. The lone guitar is most often the sole accompaniment, emphasising the personal sadness, but there are frequently other voices and instruments whirling away very low in the mix, as if to symbolise the noise we keep repressed in our minds as we try desperately to bring a single moment back to life. To process it and to make sense of it.

We live in turbulent times for young, black citizens. And as the most articulate young African American songwriter, a lot of people are looking to Frank Ocean to comment on the situation. They won’t find what they are looking for on ‘Blonde’. I’ve already read critics who are clutching at straws, longing for him to be the voice of black protest, trying to put words in to his mouth. Ocean is simply more interested in the personal than he political here. More interested in making sense of his life than in making sense of other people’s. And in as much as the personal and the political are always inter-linked, then sure, this is an implicitly political record. But it is is no ‘What’s Going on’ or ‘Black Messiah’. ‘RIP Trayvon, that nigga looked just liked me’ is as close as he ever gets to commenting on the current ‘black lives matter’ troubles. It is however a kind of protest album, if you this about it.

Whatever you wanted from Frank Ocean, I can’t imagine that too many people wanted what they got – an awkward, largely experimental collection of quiet anti-pop songs. But as the rolling stones once sang ‘you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.’ That song’s message has recently been corrupted – it is currently being used in Donald Tump’s campaign rallies. In these unreal times of political uncertainty it is more important than ever for intelligent young artists to think outside the box and take part in the conversation on their own terms. ‘Blonde’ is a statement of singular determination to be and say precisely what Frank Ocean wants, regardless of what else is happening in society and culture at large. Frank Ocean is unconventional, thoughtful, sensitive and confident. He’s developed a rich black voice, full of intelligence and personal insight. He will not conform. For that reason more than anything else, ‘Blonde’ and ‘Endless’ are important works of populist art. In that respect, this is a kind of protest music – a protest against the wide spread dumbing down in society, a protest against conformity, a protest against lowered standards and a protest against doing what is expected of you.

8/10

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