By Sam Bleazard
If you talk to kids in high school they’ll all have their cool points, and many will identify with musicians slightly outside the mainstream (I know I did), those who are challenging the listeners’ ear, bravely maintaining a sense of integrity in the music while still gathering a significant following.
Following a conversation with a family friend recently I felt compelled to check out the new album by Frank Ocean, blond.
An enigma to say the least, Ocean really broke through with his Channel Orange set, with the inevitable comparisons to Prince, but with some justification. The innovation on that album takes the listener on a vivid journey, almost akin to a Joni Mitchell sensibility with lyrics, fed through an RnB filter. If you’ve never heard it now’s the time to check it out. What the Hissing of Summer Lawns was to the 1970s, Channel Orange is to the noughties. The soulnessness of the white picket fence nightmare that Mitchell depicted then, has eerie echoes in his “super rich kids with nothin’ but loose ids” commentary on California.
“Nikes” (‘Nike-ees’) is a really curious opener, you would love to know what the thought process was before it was committed to tape – it contains a combination of hymnal chords on keys, and with Ocean singing a lament in a speeded up voice…so it’s probably worth checking out the lyrics sheet online for the hidden meanings. And just when you think this is going to be an impenetrable opening, suddenly he appears rapping, straight from the sound-cloud crystal clear. And this is part of the fun of course, like a lot of great music, film and literature, Ocean believes in layers being peeled back bit by bit to reveal something more fascinating. And like a lot of his own influences he’s an incredible editor, having the confidence to peel a track back to its bare bones, the sparse and spectral arrangements he’s experimenting with here requiring a heap of nerve.
On “Ivy” we hear his nostalgic reminisces around the frustration of a past relationship – “we’ll never be kids again”, which on paper might sound like traditional R&B fare, but the lyrics are delivered over an echoey guitar-line that could have been a lift from the UK Madchester era of the 1990s.
By complete contrast, ‘Pink & White’ is three minutes of swagger, a dreamy ode to who knows what. I’d read some of the suggested meanings online subsequently, but you suspect Ocean wants people to draw their own conclusions.
We then get a voicemail message from ‘Mom’ pleading with the listener not to get hooked on drugs, marijuana and alcohol…’don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself and know that that’s good enough’ she implores. The transcendental ‘Solo’ follows, with a minimalist church organ sound used to stunning effect, allowing the singer to meditate on everything from being alone to the virtues of natural vs chemical highs.
‘Skyline To’ sounds like the soundtrack to escapism, with a lover in tow, and during the stream of consciousness expletives are dropped liberally – which certainly pricks up your ears. What follows is an insight aurally, but like a lot of the album something of a mystery lyrically.
‘Self-control’ shimmers, in a way that a lot of the album doesn’t – and it’s the kind of track you feel that only he could produce at this moment in time. At first it seems unspectacular, the high pitched voice device being used once more, to counterpoint his actual singing tone on alternate verses. What follows is a lovely guitar lament where he confesses that an unrequited love made him ‘lose [his] self-control’. The subsequent ‘take down some summer time’ outro is one of the highlights of the album.
The reprise of Solo features Andre 3000 in a slightly more hard-core rapping style than most will be used to, talking about feeling low and questioning the integrity and originality of other artists, amongst other things.
As a complete whole, it’s fair to say that the album is by no means an easy listen, and as experimental as Channel Orange was, there were a number of consistent themes and stories that pulled the listener along, really taking them into the decadence of what he was or wasn’t experiencing in LA in his early 20s. On ‘Pretty Sweet’, (amusing spoken interlude ‘Facebook Story’) and ‘Close to you’, there’s a sense of experimentation for its own sake, and the album stutters.
Things get back on track with White Ferrari, which is more in keeping with the best songs here, and if anything defines ‘blond’ as an album it is its minimalism. There’s a lovely reference to the Lennon and McCartney composition ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ when he reflects on being 16 and of places to go, but again the listener has to work hard to find the meaning.
Two of the latter tracks ‘Siegfried’ and ‘Godspeed’ pleasingly are two of the best on the album. On the former he moans ‘maybe I’m a fool, maybe I should move, and settle, two kids and a swimming pool’. At one point shouting “I’m not brave!”. This might ordinarily seem like a dilemma about settling down by any other artist but this is a guy who, when he was being touted as the next big thing in black American R&B, decided he would let the world know he was gay and also completely unashamed of it. What also makes Ocean interesting is that this never seems to define him, it seems to only serve to make him more interesting – because as surreal and left-field as his narratives are, his is a voice that is just not represented. Or wasn’t previously so close to the mainstream. The fact that industry heavyweights – everyone from Beyoncé to Pharrel Williams – were queuing up to work with him probably speaks volumes. He is the taste-maker, as Sly Stone once was to the Jackson 5, before his slide into the darkness on ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’.
‘Godspeed’ seems to have been an important song in terms of the overall theme of the album – whose original title was rumoured to be called ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. On the genius.com website it mentions that the song shares its title with a screenplay Frank Ocean published in his Boys Don’t Cry publication: “I wrote a story in the middle – it’s called ‘Godspeed’. It’s basically a reimagined part of my boyhood. Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favourite part of my life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid.”
The closing track Futura Free is a long rambling stream of consciousness, which opens slightly tongue in cheek, with the following lines: “If I was being honest, I’d say long as I could f*** three times a day and not skip a meal, I’m good, I used to work on my feet for 7 dollars an hour”. The refreshing honesty and wit aside, unfortunately like the rest of the album it’s hard not to reflect that it’s an unsatisfactory whole as an experience. It’s in these moments that the editing, or lack of, lets him down.
There’s definitely no-one like Frank Ocean around, and yes there are moments of genius here, it’s just a lot less satisfying to listen to from one end to the other than Channel Orange was because most of his stories and plot lines are buried several layers too deep. That’s his prerogative and he knows he’s created enough interest for people to want to listen and discover more. I don’t crave an easy listen, but sometimes you need certain hooks or points of reference to hang on to.
To say that his career, his music and his future directions are compelling would probably be an understatement, because everyone will be watching what he does next. My hope would be that that he doesn’t lose the power of his story-telling, as his is a unique voice in a time where that voice is crying out to be heard.
The good news is that everyone from the ‘super rich kids’ to the high school kids, industry heads and music lovers alike will be debating what it all means, and will be ready to tune in when we hear from him again.