Monday 5 September 2016

Review of 'Blonde' by Frank Ocean

Hooks? Percussion? Who needs that shit? Not Frank Ocean.

It’s been four years since the Odd-Future-member-turned-indie/r&b-icon graced us with his last album Channel Orange. Since then he’s been in hiding, rumours of a new album circulating for the last 48 months, false release dates being constantly announced, missing posters going up around NewYork City. There’s been a dangerous amount of hype. If Frank was ever going to emerge back into the sunlight from his recording studio/nuclear bunker, he would have to come through with something pretty damn special.

And that he has certainly done. In the space of a week, he’s dropped not just one, but two new albums, Endless and Blonde/Blond (spelt two ways to be edgy and to confuse fans). For this review, we’ll focus purely on the latter, since this seems to be the main attraction, Endless serving more as a side-dish in the form of a giant avant-garde music video (a ‘visual album’ if you want to get all technical about it), although sonically there isn’t really much difference between the two – both consisting of slow r&b ballads largely devoid of hooks and percussion, punctuated by massive wtf-moments.

‘Nikes’ kicks Blonde/Blond off to a rather sour start. Delivered in an annoying pitched-up chimpmunk vocal tone, Frank offers some stream-of-consciousness babble that sees him noting his likeness to Trayvon Martin and confessing his love for a mermaid version of FKA Twigs, also briefly uttering some nonsense about ‘rain’ and ‘glitter’. The track sets the tone with its pretty chords and meandering lack-of-structure, although thankfully is the only case where Frank adopts robot-on-helium vocals.

Excluding a random skit of Frank’s mother telling him not to be ‘a weedhead’, the next few tracks are all intimate ballads that see the singer showing off his sweet voice over beautiful percussionless chord arrangements. ‘Solo’ stands out as a highlight with its gorgeous organs and intriguing lyrical ambiguity – (is it ‘solo’ he really means, or ‘so low’?). It feels like one of the few moments where Frank isn’t trying to pass off gibberish as poetry, having abandoned the vivid storytelling of Channel Orange. ‘Skyline To’ meanwhile stands out as another highlight, set to a Tyler-the-Creator produced instrumental of melancholy guitars, with emotive crooning over the top.

About midway through the record, Frank then full on loses his marbles. An entire track dedicated to Andre 3000 speedily spitting over pianos is followed by  ‘Pretty Sweet’, which opens with the r&b singer yelling over a cacophony of dissonant strings. Following this is an excerpt of a heavily-accented man refusing to friend someone on Facebook. It’s all very confusing, although reassuringly seems to only be a temporary bout of madness, Frank returning for some more percussionless ballads towards the close of the record including ‘White Ferrari’ with its miasmic detuned synths and ‘Siegfried’ with its acrobatic vocal performance. Here the beauty of Blonde/Blond really shines through. It’s just a shame Frank has to ugly it all up at the very end by dedicating the last four minutes of ‘Futura’ to experimental clutter, tailing off the record by forcing the listener to scramble for the mute button.

Indeed, you’d be ignorant to dismiss this entire album as pure garbage. There are moments of pure artistry on Blonde/Blond, not all of which reveal themselves on first listen. ‘Pretty Sweet’ seems to sum up this concept – opening to complete chaos before slowly dissipating into something truly tuneful.

Of course, to call it a masterpiece would be just as rash, as there are as many obnoxious parts as there are sophisticated moments. The ‘thought of becoming a dream’ stoner babble at the end of ‘Siegfried’ and aforementioned ‘rain, glitter line in ‘Nikes’ feel like moments that could be humorous if Frank accepted they were gibberish. Instead, he lets us believe there’s some divine deeper meaning, which only frustrates me into thinking other messy moments aren’t as intentional as they seem. What if Frank simply forgot to insert the drum tracks into most of these songs? What if ‘Solo’ only has a solo meaning and no other interpretations?

Frank certainly tries a lot of daring things on this album. But sometimes it feels like he’s throwing random ideas at the canvas and seeing what sticks. Because he can.