Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Frank Ocean - Blonde Review

Frank Ocean has, not by his own admission, become the poster child for the Internet's ADD generation. Its been four years since his magnificent sophomore LP channel ORANGE, and if you hadn't known that with the way the hype machine has acted you'd imagine it to be a lifetime. The 16-year wait for The Avalanches' Wildflower, 21 for My Bloody Valentine's MBV, 22 for the Pixies' Indie Cindy, 17 for American Football's debut follow-up, all make Blonde's four seem quite trivial. Hell, for a large majority of Ocean's fans those grueling waits are, in fact, longer than their lifetimes. Ocean's absence has, unfortunately, become the butt of many memes, a disappointing realization given the seriousness of his music. But rather than return without much fanfare, remaining quiet like his persona, Ocean's state of affairs has only escalated with his silence, the giving nature of this past weekend, dropping both Endless and Blonde, along with magazines and a music video, show that he's willing to give to his fans, if they're willing to show patience for art to unfold. And while the praises are already being heaped upon Blonde's stature, its limitations, I feel, mark it as a disappointment, even if the music contained within has moments of grandeur.

In this day and age, it seems, the hype spoils the ending. Given little to no information on Blonde's existence, or that of Endless' live stream that gave a social commentary on the foolish, sometimes obsessive hype itself, fans became lost in the reverie of their own self-curated marketing campaign, already deeming Blonde a success because of the enjoyment they had while waiting for it. Ocean's follow-up was, essentially, too large to fail. It's a shame then, that in my eyes, Blonde pales in comparison to the lofty expectations set by channel ORANGE. If it wasn't for the accompaniment of Endless, a collection of b-sides that showcased progression within intriguing experimental R&B, the stale nature of Blonde would be completely lost on me. On my first listen through Ocean's proper revival and, at track #13, I was waiting for the LP to start. channel ORANGE showcased what few artists in this age can do; evolution within the confines of a project. There was a clear, unfolding theme that carried the album, something Blonde's unsteady content dabbles in, only feeling cohesive to the touch by means of a minimalist palate.

On Blonde, unlike channel ORANGE, and, in some regards, Endless, Ocean fails to give a definitive purpose. 'Nikes,' the opener, which usually sets the tone, does the complete opposite. And while I can appreciate that from an artistic standpoint, the incoherency displayed on the song, made obvious by some dated vocal pitch-shifting that would make Odd Future circa 2012 roll their eyes, convolutes a potential plot far beyond its means. Initially, on songs like 'Pink + White,' it plays out like a stereotypical R&B piece, languished in romantic tropes, even if partially saved by Ocean's endearing vocals and unique commentary. Later works, like 'White Ferrari' or 'Close To You,' continue this trend, despite other songs, like 'Good Guy' and 'Seigfried,' touching on Ocean's personal imperfections. And then, like a complete 180, the two-part closer 'Futura Free' tells us Blonde was actually a reminiscent tale on how far Ocean and his group of friends have come from their days of adolescence. The only glue holding it all together; the similar sonic aesthetics. The most disappointing aspect of this all? There is little mention of what makes Ocean an original artist; that of his sexual conflictions in a genre dominated by one gender being infatuated with the other. His bisexuality brought tension, unease, and fresh perspectives to channel ORANGE, the lack of which on Blonde, an album's which unclear title even aims to go down that road again, a major disappointment.

One-half of the melting pot that made Ocean's earlier work fascinating was the production. Found on the cusp of mainstream Pop's transition to a more modern, sleek R&B style, with the likes of Drake, The Weeknd, and Tory Lanez borrowing from Ocean's futuristic soundstage, Blonde seems, in many ways, a regression to that placemat. Minimalistic, with a focus on acid guitars, Blonde features almost no percussion or synths, a shocking turn compared to the sometimes bombastic nature of channel ORANGE. Thankfully, Ocean's ode to primitive R&B is well thought out and endearing, but without much ground to work on there's only so much he can do to make him, a guitar, and some atmosphere stand out from the dozen other tracks doing the same thing. The massive drums midway through 'Futura Free' come in as a breath of fresh air when scouring Blonde's instilled emptiness for something to nod your head to. What I can certainly appreciate is Ocean's cold shoulder to the radio, as Blonde certainly won't receive the same nationwide appeal as his previous works or featured guest spots. It's a personal work curated by his own means and desires.

Now that the bulk of my negatives are out of the way, I can say this; Blonde is not a bad record, just a misguided one. On a song-by-song basis, the highs are breathtaking. 'Self Control' is a doozy, and the clear standout. Much like the riveting 'Rushes' off Endless, 'Self Control' starts relatively hushed, with origins not unlike many tracks here, before incorporating beautiful vocals from Austin Feinstein and Yung Lean. The finale, incorporating reverb, repeated echoes, and a screaming chiptune like something you'd hear off Life Of Pablo, marks Blonde's climax and one of Ocean's best moments. Elsewhere the duo of 'Solo' and 'Solo (Reprise)' are both entertaining for obvious reasons, as the former sees Ocean glide with a tip-toed flow while envisioning some clairvoyant memories, as the latter invites idol Andre 3000 back into the mix for his now expected once a year legendary verse. A psychotic flow along with some breathtaking lines ("So-lo that no more high horses, so hard to wear Polo, when I do, I cut the pony off, now there's a hole that once was a logo, how fitting") make this one of three stacks' best to date.

That's not all though, when Ocean enters his personal realm, peeling back even more of his Alternative R&B foundation, he succeeds, if only a few times. 'Ivy' is a solid representation of Blonde's presented style, complete with piercing vocals, a woozy guitar-led palate, and some really nice imagery that morphs inherent nostalgia. Seen as the unofficial finale to that idea, before 'Futura Free' rounds things off in a different direction, 'Godspeed' acts as a bittersweet goodbye, with Ocean witnessing a former love interest officially fade into the sunset. The front half bears almost nothing tune-wise, placing the crux of the track on Ocean's heart, while the last minute incorporates some James Blake-esque vocal samples spinning under a well-oiled Gospel send-off. Done tastefully mind you, not like some over-the-top work Ocean's companions have done recently. Tracks like these, acting as miniature stories that can survive without engaging production, make Blonde worthwhile. It's just a shame that moments where Ocean attempts the same fate, like the incredibly dull 'Pretty Sweet,' made even more so by some horribly cliche children singers, or 'Skyline To,' he falters by putting a weighted restraint on being catchy.

Being that Blonde is clearly Ocean's most personal work, it makes sense he's limited the features here. But the same straps he imposed on other facets of the music also hinder Blonde's diversity, with almost nonexistent guest work. His contributions list ran the gamut, from Brian Eno to Jamie XX to Amber Coffman, and yet Andre 3000 is the only one to appear here in substantial form, acting as Ocean's elder train of thought. And after waiting four years for a project to be greeted by two, playing Endless and then Blonde, will cause you to grow tired of Ocean's inescapable world. There's only so many stark, singer/songwriter medley's with little replay value I can handle before Blonde becomes tedious. A few interesting ideas here and there, some grand ones, and an appreciative use of intrigue throughout helps Blonde stay afloat. But after four years of waiting, expecting the next shift in Alternative R&B with its mysterious leader returning, hearing Ocean sink to something that's been done many times before is underwhelming, to say the least.

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