Tag Archives: Frank Ocean

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.


Frank Ocean ‘Channel Orange’ – Review

22 Jul

Frank Ocean’s name doesn’t appear on the artwork to ‘Channel Orange’, his official debut album. He’s a storyteller, therefore having his name on the front would merely detract attention from the characters who apear within. He wanted to go further and have his name divorced from all kinds of promotion and advertising, which goes to emphasise his desire to let the music speak for itself. But then a week before releasing the album, Ocean posted a cryptic and beautifully written confessional statement online about how he once fell in love with a man. Whilst such an act can hardly be considered a piece of marketing or promotion (due to the undercurrent of homophobia in hip hop/r&b) it’s timing can’t have been a coincidence, and it had the effect, desired or not, of putting the name FRANK OCEAN very much in the public domain. Why go to such lengths to seperate your name from an album’s promotion, only to release a statement that makes sure your name is trending like crazy in the week leading up to the release?

Here we have the contradiction at the heart of ‘Channel Orange’, because whilst Frank pens brilliant stories, with brilliant characters, his personality is so strong and distinctive it can’t help but overshadow everything else.  On the one hand ‘Channel Orange’ is a perfect piece of escapism; Frank wrote some songs about people whose problems are so massive they overshadowed his own demons for a while. But then the rest of the songs on this album are blatantly, inescapably first-person – he’s admitted as much. ‘Channel Orange’ is equal parts escape and release, and sometimes It’s hard to tell what is personal and what is fantasy, what is experience and what is imagination, and that’s one reason why it’s so captivating. He switches from heart-wrenching confessionals like ‘Thinking ‘Bout You’ and ‘Bad Religion’ to stunningly well observed narratives such as ‘Super Rich Kids’ and ‘Crack Rock’ at the drop of a hat, only sometimes you can’t tell when the hat’s been dropped. A song like ‘Forest Gump’ may be written from the perspective of a female character in the film, but you can’t help but instinctivly feel how much Frank relates to the character in lines like ‘you run my mind boy, run my mind.’

His slow burning r&b approach to music certainly makes a nice bedfellow with the confessional poetry he writes, and his vocal delivery never wallows or looses control; Frank has a considered, restrained approach to singing, where the voice quivers but never cracks. This allows him to step out of the emotional arena at times and take on the role of objective observer, as on ‘Super Rich Kids’ where his voice makes him sound involved without being too close and questioning without being critical. This song is just one of countless examples of Frank’s uniquely ambitious and deeply thoughtful lyrics. The song describes the lives of wasted, rich teenagers, and like most songs on this album it includes puns (‘too many bowls of green, no lucky charm’) half-rhymes (‘too many white lines and white lies’) double entendre (‘This shower head feels so amazing’) metaphor (‘high enough to touch the rim’) and other literary devices that are rarely used by artists in any genre, let alone one as restrictive as r&b.

The album’s peak is ‘Pyramids’, a ten minute epic that’s more ambitious and groundbreaking than anything else you’ll hear all year. The song’s lyrics draw a parallel between ancient Egypt and modern-day America. He makes the connections through elaborate wordplay; for example cheetahs (a common pet of Egyptian queens) and cheaters (as in people who cheat on their partner), whilst Cleopatra is compared to a modern-day ‘queen’ who works in a strip club called the pyramid. The song’s themes, beautifully realised, are jealousy, passion, loss, betrayal and falling from an impossible height. Musically the song is just as creative, equal parts club banger, quite-storm, neo soul and contemporary pop.

Ocean channels the greats of the genre; he borrows the electric piano sound from Stevie Wonder’s classic period, the laid back swagger of D’angelo, the melodic turns of Marvin Gaye and the musical flourishes of Prince. Whilst he is clearly in the linegae of r&b singers, his tastes are eclectic (on his mixtape he sampled everyone from The Eagles to MGMT to Coldplay) and there are flashes of lo-fi indie, stoner rock and even psychadelia and gospel here. ‘Channel Orange’ also features occasional, and well selected guests. Pharrel Williams co-wrote ‘Sweet Life’ and it doesn’t half sound like a N.E.R.D song from 2004. Fellow Odd Future cohort Earl takes a turn on ‘Super Rich Kids’, spinning a verse that is surprisingly restrained and completely incomphrohensable (but totally brilliant). Even the long lost Andre 3000 turns up on ‘Pink Matter’, reminding everyone what the world is missing without Outkast (just where have they been for the past 8 years?!?!).

Is ‘Channel Orange’ a classic album? it’s too early to say – although It’s certainly an important one. It isn’t pefect however; It has a strange flow, beginning and ending with ballads, and it’s riddled with pointless interludes. Ocean has many personas and he’s got so many ideas that he often doesn’t know how best to organise and collate them. But who am I to criticise? His first release, ‘Nostalgia Ultra’, hinted at his potential but ‘Channel Orange’ suggests that he is easily one of the most talented young songwriters to emerge in recent years. He contributed the best songs to Beyonce and Kanye West’s last albums and now this record shows that he’s more than a match for those two established artists. It’s also worth pointing out how few reviews have mentioned Odd Future, the collective Frank’s a member of, and the collective who completely overshadowed his last album. If Earl and Tyler the Creator started out as the ones to watch in that group then they’re well and truely eating Ocean’s dust right now.

His first album was called ‘Nostalgia Ultra’ and it did what it said on the tin, essentially being a nostalgic mixtape, made up of laments to the past and featuring favourite, but overused, samples. This record’s title also references nostalgia but in a more subtle way; it’s called ‘Channel Orange’ because ‘orange reminds me of the summer I fell in love’. Frank’s still got an eye on his past but he’s now addressing that in more interesting, impressionistic, and (after that statement) honest, ways. It’s also worth noting how neccersary and modern this album sounds compared to ‘Nostalgia Ultra’. All things considered, regardless of it’s future importance or reputation,  this is the best record I’ve heard all year.