Disclaimer: Three years ago last week, Felicia and I named our daughter, Emerson Ocean Courtney, after Frank Ocean and another shared hero of ours, transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. This might make me biased or this might make me perfect for the job of considering what to make of
Blond, the tandem of projects (released just over a day apart) that follow up Ocean’s 2012 opus
ORANGE. What it certainly means, however, is that these albums matter a great deal to me. And I know I'm not alone in that.
In content and presentation, the visual album Endless
draws a stark and tempting contrast to the year’s most important visual album, Beyoncé’s Lemonade
. Where Lemonade
celebrates the radiance of a relative empowerment, Endless
, with a soulful if withered earnestness, ruminates on a unity of opposites, on the low-key triumphs of confronting an interior night with a prayer that doesn't flinch at the abyss of permanent flux. Though hardly minor, the video aspect of Endless
and the album itself will be seen as minor owing to several factors, including the black and white, one-room, one-"character" visual’s calm understatement—in the course of the video, Ocean builds and mounts a stairway to nowhere out of wooden boxes he pre-built (as depicted in a previous stream)—and its conventional listenability deficit in comparison to Blond
is a smear-of-consciousness album of smirking murk and circumstance, fulfilling Ocean’s obligations to Def Jam and acting both as appetizer and inwardly-pointed doppelgänger to the more fully realized and outgoing Blond
. This is what Ocean’s long-awaited follow up looks like in The Upside Down
, to borrow a phrase. In this, it’s reminiscent at parts of the earliest stuff from Tom Krell (aka How to Dress Well) for its skeletal and limp structure and its lo-fi, post-Lynchian, r&b haze. Much of the production here is handled by Ocean himself, with assists from cutting-edge sonic luminaries like Johnny Greenwood, James Blake, Arca, young wunderkind Frank Dukes, Alex G, and Michael Uzowuru. Thus, the peculiarly gaunt quality of the music is certainly not owing to any lack of talent or attention, but rather a desire to lend a stark and haunting quality to these compositions.
The most powerful songs on Endless
— “At Your Best,” “Mine,” “Hublots,” “Rushes,” “Rushes To,” and “Higgs”—could have made an EP that would have blown folks away and served to quell the fervor of fans clamoring for new Frankie these past several years. But, when you're Frank Ocean you don't give a shit about that. When you're out there, actively creating yourself, you don't worry too much how harshly the masses judge the project in formation. When you're Frank Ocean, you bury a beautiful and heart-swelling ballad that features work by James Blake, Johnny Greenwood, and the London Contemporary Orchestra ("At Your Best") in the depths of a knotty album of patient and serendipitous sketches. When you're Frank Ocean, the lesser of two albums you released in the span of two days is better than what anyone else is doing.
As with Endless
, but slightly less so, Blond
left me wondering, at first listen, how much replay I could handle with so much in the way of layered ambient garble. But, I've really gotten lost in said garble, and I find it a fascinating background that deepens the mystery with regard to the druggy, emotionally-frayed half-narratives Ocean weaves in and out of like lanes of L.A. traffic. The production here is better than on channel ORANGE
because it doesn't insist on itself as much and it's more organic, which also happens to be one of Ocean's great songwriting strengths. Like Endless
boasts an impressive cast of studio collaborators, just a few of which include (along with the cast who helped on Endless
) Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams, Tyler the Creator, Andre 3000 (who delivers a stellar and searing verse), and Yung Lean. But, surprisingly enough, it seems, based on the production credits, that this album is more wholly a product of Ocean's personal vision than Endless
. Maybe this is what took the man so damn long: he toiled solo over much of this album, obsessively searching for the nonchalant perfection that he eventually realized. (Side note: how many beta-bro, sing-rappers would kill to sing OR rap as well as Ocean? I can't think of anyone who has melded conversational vivacity, rap swagger, and r&b immediacy like this.)
Album highlights almost do a disservice to this masterpiece, which should be heard beginning-to-end. But, if you're looking to be blown away by a few individual songs before diving into the labyrinthine whole, then "Nikes," "Ivy," "Pink + White," "Solo," "Nights," "Pretty Sweet," "Siegfried," and "Futura Free" should take you where you need to go. The album, I have to mention, really showcases Ocean's ever improving lyricism; in turns philosophical and mystical, poignant and egoistic, immature and wise, brash and tender, centered and utterly lost. On "Nights," when he sings "I don't trust them anyways, You can't break the law with them," he echoes (probably without knowing it) Bob Dylan's famous edict that "To live outside the law, one must be honest."
The vibe is definitely funereal—like Ocean’s drifting endlessly through some dark, grimy, drug/sex filled purgatory... Too famous to be regular, too defiantly different to own what people seek in his fame, too isolated/in-motion for the final resting place of love. And when his unaltered voice does strike out from the hypnotically chaotic darkness, it's like a golden ray of light, like a brief satori or realization of warmth. In other words, this is grown, sexy and spiritual music for a debauched species trying to fall in love with life on a ruined planet.