October 2016

Arts & Letters

The party goes on

By Anwen Crawford

Frank Ocean performs at the Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival 2014 in Tennessee. © FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival / Getty Images

Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ bemuses but rewards

What makes an album? With every passing month this year, the answer has grown more intricate. Outstanding albums of 2016 have encompassed final statements (Blackstar, David Bowie, January); songs altered several times over since initial release (The Life of Pablo, Kanye West, February); demo collections (Untitled Unmastered, Kendrick Lamar, March); audiovisual essays (Lemonade, Beyoncé, April); and mixtapes (Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper, May).

Also surfing this wave of creative energy is Frank Ocean, who has reappeared with not one but three variations on the album form. A visual album, Endless, was released as a digital stream via Apple Music in late August; a digital audio album, Blonde (also stylised as blond), was released shortly after Endless on the same platform; and a CD version of Blonde, with a variant track listing, was bundled with copies of a free magazine called Boys Don’t Cry and made available at pop-up stores in the US and Britain (but not in Australia).

The effect of this sudden glut of material has been to fragment rather than solidify the figure of Frank Ocean, an immensely gifted 28-year-old singer and songwriter who works at the edges of R’n’B, incorporating hip-hop, rock and a subdued sort of electronica (silky synthesisers, pattering beats) into his music. The nature of Ocean’s new projects is tentative and experimental, as if he were in flight from the renown he has acquired since the release of his critically lauded and commercially successful debut album Channel Orange. One might compare Ocean’s tactics to those of Radiohead, who released a pair of albums – Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) – that wholly confounded the expectations of the global audience that had amassed in the wake of their astonishing concept record OK Computer (1997). It has taken Ocean only two albums to make this sideways move when it took Radiohead four: a measure of Ocean’s inventiveness, but also a clue as to how he has chosen to handle his fame.

Born in California but raised in New Orleans, Ocean began his musical career as a songwriter (he worked on Beyoncé’s 2011 album 4, among other credits) before joining the Los Angeles–based hip-hop collective Odd Future, of which he is still nominally a member. Ocean’s first mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, was released online in early 2011. (At this juncture it’s worth noting that in terms of musical ambition and quality the contemporary hip-hop mixtape may be all but indistinguishable from a studio album. The difference lies in distribution and legality: mixtapes are available for free and often include the kind of uncleared samples that a record label might not be willing to pay for. Nostalgia, Ultra certainly did.)

Channel Orange came out in 2012. Ocean came out too. Reaction to the album was bound up with his decision to publish on his personal website an open letter – originally intended for Channel Orange’s liner notes – that detailed a prior and unrequited love for another man. “It was my first love, it changed my life,” he wrote. (His songs have described female lovers, too.) Ocean’s letter arrived at a time of renewed interest in LGBT rights: just weeks beforehand, Barack Obama had become the first sitting president of the United States to publicly support same-sex marriage. The letter also – and not coincidentally – typified a prevailing impulse to take one’s misfit feelings online, in the hope of soothing or even dispersing that loneliness by way of a longed-for community. “Whoever you are, wherever you are …” wrote Ocean, wistful ellipses included, “I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.”

Channel Orange combined loose musical sketches with fully realised songs (each track flowed into the next, with no gaps) and matched a precise sense of location – wealthy, rash Los Angeles – to a boundless sense of yearning and ennui. “You’ve had a landscaper and housekeeper since you were born,” Ocean sang on ‘Sweet Life’, reporting back from the sort of palatial surrounds he was privy to as commercial songwriter-for-hire. “So why see the world / When you got the beach?” Small clusters of jazzy electric piano chords, low down in the mix, added to the evocation of a sun-dappled scene, the inhabitants of which remained dazzled by their own good fortune.

With little but rumour to fill the four years since Channel Orange, listeners might have reasonably expected that Ocean’s follow-up album(s) would build upon the strengths of his earlier record. For all the candour regarding Ocean’s love-life, Channel Orange was equally shaped by his talent for inhabiting other characters. These he voiced in a smooth and lovely baritone that he proved capable of roughing up at will; like Marvin Gaye before him, Ocean knows just when to add a little raspiness, or some falsetto notes, to increase the emotional pressure of his performance.

So it is a surprise that Blonde begins with Ocean’s voice pitch-shifted beyond recognition. “These bitches want Nikes,” he sings in an artificially high register – is this even him singing? “Tell ’em it ain’t likely.” A synthesiser wavers on one, two notes; the beat is basic; the mood druggy and enervated. Could it be that after four years Ocean has returned only to complain about his wealth and his hangers-on? That’s never a good idea.

Halfway through ‘Nikes’ the atmosphere changes, and the images of hedonism turn poetic: “Weed crumbles into glitter,” sings Ocean. “Rain, glitter.” His voice has resumed a more natural pitch, though Auto-Tune distorts the timbre. The drums vanish, only to reappear in the dying seconds of the song like a nudge to the ribs. Feeling tired? The party goes on.

The bigger surprise is not how different Blonde is from Channel Orange, but how similar. There are car rides, carousals and drugs to spare across both records. Played back to back the two albums make sense of each other, with Blonde the hazy, late-night sequel to the bright spoilt days documented on Channel Orange. The contrast lies in production – many songs on Blonde sound like demos, with little more than keyboard or a muffled guitar as instrumentation – and also in perspective. Gone are the vivid character studies of Channel Orange; they have been replaced by interior monologues, the emotional shifts of which are marked by alterations in Ocean’s voice and in the quality of air that surrounds him. He raps as much as he sings, disguises his voice with digital processing as often as he leaves it untreated. Sometimes he seems to be right up close, at other moments fading fast into the distance. On ‘Nights’, which is effectively two songs yoked together at the album’s midpoint, he sounds like several different people twisting around each other. “You don’t even got nobody being honest with you,” he sings, moving nimbly through the convoluted syntax: a moment indicative of this album’s elegant complications.

Blonde is an unusual album – one of the few sure things that can be said of it. As with Radiohead’s Kid A, it has been greeted with an instant acclaim that belies its difficulties. A listener prepared to devote to it time and attention will discover an album that coheres with repeated listens into something quite captivating, with moments of tender, painful beauty. But I wouldn’t blame anyone who, finding it dull or indulgent or both, gives up before that point. Endless, the accompanying and less interesting visual album to Blonde, serves as a warning: culled from 140 hours of live footage streamed online, the end product is 45 minutes of Ocean constructing a staircase. It’s more like a video installation than a pop record.

Channel Orange earned Ocean comparisons with Stevie Wonder, but if Blonde brings to mind a musical predecessor it must be Arthur Russell. Russell, who died in New York in 1992, was a classically trained cellist who worked with several figureheads of American avant-garde music, including Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He kept up a parallel career as a writer and producer of disco records, and he also recorded an untold number of solo songs to tape, many of which have only been released posthumously. These songs are distinguished by Russell’s ear for melody, but they are restless and strange: the cello sounds in distorted, fitful layers, while Russell’s voice seems to duplicate itself in close harmonies. One of the few albums that Russell released within his lifetime, World of Echo (1986), was sampled by Kanye West for The Life of Pablo, and it is also the closest template for Blonde.

Why Russell, and why now? I think because the rudimentary, unfinished nature of his solo work speaks across the decades to musicians who today find themselves at liberty to release their sketchiest and most challenging material online – a liberty that might also be felt as a burden. (Channel Orange was released by the esteemed hip-hop label Def Jam, but Blonde is self-released.) Russell, too, was as much a person of the art world as of the pop world, and these lines are blurring once again: what with a film, a magazine and two versions of Blonde to his name, we might see Ocean as a curator as much as a musical artist. He has drawn several other significant figures from this year to his projects: Beyoncé provides discreet harmonies for ‘Pink + White’; Kendrick Lamar shows up briefly on ‘Skyline To’; and Kanye West’s poem about McDonald’s (yes, really) appears in Boys Don’t Cry, where Ocean also credits David Bowie as an album contributor, in spirit if not in person.

The challenge for Ocean’s audience is to sit with all these pieces, to try viewing (and hearing) the artist through this kaleidoscope. Now you see me, he says. And now you don’t.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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