Nick Bollinger considers the long-awaited return of R&B auteur Frank Ocean.
After a four-year silence, this month saw a veritable tsunami of new work from Frank Ocean, with the release of Blond and - almost simultaneously - a personally curated 360-page coffee-table magazine, Boys Don’t Cry, and 45-minute video album with its own soundtrack.
I haven’t seen the mag and I’m not going to spend too much time discussing the video either: essentially a 45-minute metaphor for the creative process in which Ocean builds himself a spiral staircase, then climbs it. But I have been spending some time with what is clearly the main event: the 70-minute, 17-track follow-up to one of the most acclaimed R&B albums of the decade, 2012’s Channel Orange.
Channel Orange was rightly hailed as an important work: an R&B album informed by hip-hop, rather than the other way round, full of unusual yet imperishable melodies and unpredictable, innovative structures. Perhaps most importantly, it heralded a new kind of R&B artist, whose work is revealingly personal, often conflicted, and whose chief subject is self-analysis.
There’s plenty of all that on Blond too, though it is not simply Channel Orange Volume 2. If anything, Ocean’s melodies have grown more seductive, his structures more eccentric.
Though it opens with ‘Nikes’, with its extreme yet weirdly appealing treatment of Ocean’s voice and a compellingly lopsided beat, the bulk of the album has no beats at all. It’s mostly Ocean, accompanying himself either on keyboard or guitar, at times completely solo. It’s a reinvention, in a way, of the 70s soft-rock singer-songwriter, only with the benefit of endless sonic manipulations, which can intensify the sense of solitary contemplation.
So what does Frank Ocean contemplate in his solitude? There may not have been a hip-hop album in the past twelve months that hasn’t referred in some way to the Trayvon Martin killing, or the Black Lives Matter campaign in general, and Ocean checks this box right at the beginning, noting in ‘Nikes’ how he looks at an image of Trayvon and sees himself. But the way he personalises even this subject underlines the way that, for Ocean, the personal is paramount. And for most of the album he’s thinking – if not agonising – about his own relationships, apparently with both women and men, continually shifting between past and present as he recalls old loves, serenades current ones, and considers the temptations and pitfalls of promiscuity.
In ‘Siegfried’ he even allows himself to imagine for a moment settling down with ‘two kids and a swimming pool’, yet in the same verse berates himself for his lack of bravery. He may be self-absorbed, but he’s nothing if not self-critical.
The way Ocean slides in and out of his memories is matched to appropriately woozy musical atmospheres. Among Blond's contributors is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, whose presence can be most felt in the abstract ambience of tracks like ‘Siegfried’, which aren’t a million miles from the Radiohead of A Moon Shaped Pool. Though the arrangements tend to be sparse – almost the opposite of Kanye West’s maximalism – there are moments of genuine sonic experimentation.
There are also elements of spoken collage: a mother (Frank’s own, perhaps?) warning a son about the dangers of drug use; the sad if somewhat first-world problems of a French DJ whose girlfriend drops him over a Facebook misunderstanding.
But Blond would hardly be a contemporary hip-hop album if it didn’t have a few celebrity cameos, and some big names are notably present. There’s Kendrick Lamar and, briefly, Beyonce, who adds some wordless wailing to one cut. But these appearances feel essentially symbolic, as if simply to confirm that Ocean belongs in this esteemed company. Surely the most spectacular guest appearance is the one by OutKast’s Andre 3000. It’s brief, breathlessly impressive.
Andre’s rap stands out partly because it’s an over-the-top moment in an album that favours understatement. And, in spite of such potential scene-stealing, the focus of the album is firmly on the voice – or voices – of Ocean. Though in many ways he follows the singer-songwriter tradition, hip-hop is in his DNA. And while he’s proven he’s more than capable of writing lovely melodies, it’s in his nature to appropriate someone else’s tune when it suits, importing the lyrics along with it.
I don’t think it’s even a sample of The Beatles’ ‘Here There and Everywhere’ that Ocean slips into ‘White Ferrari’; rather, he just ‘becomes’ McCartney for those brief lines, and he does the same thing with the lesser-known – yet notably Beatle-esque – Elliott Smith on ‘Seigfried’.
It’s significant that when Frank Ocean borrows it’s not from old funk or R&B but from wonderful melodists like McCartney and Elliott Smith. You can hear that, in some ways, these are his role models. Yet what Ocean does on Blond is at least as far from The Beatles or Elliott Smith as it is from mainstream R&B or hip-hop. And that’s perhaps the chief reason this album has been so highly anticipated: because Frank Ocean is currently one of the few artists around who can be relied on to make a record that you know really isn’t going to sound like anyone else.
Song featured: Nikes, Solo, Solo Reprise, Ivy, Siegfried, Nights, White Ferrari, Pink and White.
Blond was released on Boys Don't Cry and is currently available exclusively on iTunes.