I found the hype around this release to be – what’s the word – grotesque? sickening? pathetic? Yeah, all of those. Put simply, you didn’t wait four years for Frank Ocean to release his follow-up to Channel Orange. You probably listened to tons of records in interim. Maybe you went outside, maybe you did something. (One hopes.)
Add to this the extremely unfortunate demand for internet writers to turn in reviews of new albums as soon as possible. I don’t doubt these writers listened to Blonde dozens of times before the due dates with an attempt of unbiased ears, but in today’s age where reaction videos are some sort of (grotesque, sickening, pathetic) social currency, it’s hard not to get lost in the hype. Quoth Gary Suarez: “So many of these ‘surprise’ album drops have been preceded by months if not years of media and fan speculation about their contents. Hype. And once these EVENT albums do arrive by surprise, writers have maybe a few hours to get acclimated and double down on months of own hype.” In other words, Frank Ocean’s Blonde was destined via self-fulfilling prophecy to be perceived as great, regardless of its actual quality.
And lo, the disconnect between the hype and the quality is just as expected – this isn’t as good as Channel Orange, and with regards to Nostalgia, Ultra., there isn’t anything here worthy of “Novacane” either. And Channel Orange wasn’t exactly perfect itself: filler in the sprawl, awkward lyrics that vied for some endearing honesty and/or social commentary but only ended up awkward (“Spending too much time alone / And I just ran out of Trojans”; “My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real”), and clumsy song structures (the useless interpolation of “Real Love” on “Super Rich Kids”; the abrupt ending of “Pink Matter”). But it was an album that was its parts and its personality, and its parts were some of the highest that the genre had to offer – the emotional “Thinkin About You”; Earl Sweatshirt’s best verse, narcotically delivered to criticize the drugged-out upper class; the overwhelming “Pyramids”; the melodicism within the straight-forward “Lost” or “Forrest Gump”; an excellent Andre 3000 verse.
This one has all of Channel Orange’s flaws, but almost none of those highlights. I’ve deleted the useless anti-drug skit that cuts the momentum of the opening three tracks (a momentum that turns out to be a rarity on this album) and the hamfisted “look at what we’ve become because technology” skit (which I know the narrator wasn’t aware he was being recorded when he shared that, but that’s the end-result all the same: clumsy bullshit message that you can get from your stoner friend when you get him or her talking). And nothing happens on “Good Guy” or “Close to You” or “Godspeed” or “Future Free” that justifies the existence of any of those songs. And in the case of the lattermost, the existence of the second half. My thoughts: he should’ve ended with “Siegfried,” which features a swirling string arrangement courtesy of Jonny Greenwood, and an ambient coda reminiscent of Brian Eno’s best (and maybe it is Eno, or a sample of him, as he was credited on the album).
Elsewhere, Kendrick Lamar’s vocals on “Skyline To” competes with Andre 3000’s contribution on “30 Hours” for most useless appearance from a God in 2016, and “Pink + White” is essentially a re-write of Beyonce’s “Superpower” with the roles reversed (ie. Frank Ocean wasn’t given much to do then, and Beyonce isn’t given much to do now). And by re-write, I mean re-write: both tracks rely on the rise-fall of a slow arpeggio as its bed. (And this is a fucking highlight on this album?)
It doesn’t help that there’s a stylistic shift from contemporary R&B to alternative R&B, in line with Beyonce and Rihanna and Drake and others: slow down yr beats (or remove them altogether), apply more eyeshadow and we have liftoff! To be fra – er – clear, Frank Ocean has never been an alternative R&B artist until now; he sings in neo-soul, his beats on Nostalgia, Ultra. and Channel Orange were both contemporary R&B, if sparer than traditionally expected. This is an artist that wrote songs for Justin Bieber and Beyonce – it doesn’t get more contemporary R&B than that. (Tags like “alternative R&B” and “art pop” have been reduced by the indie kids to mean “R&B and pop that it’s okay to like, respectively.”) The end result is the decent but ultimately soporific “White Ferrari”, which sounds like Frank Ocean spent too much in the studio when James Blake was recording The Colour of Anything – not worthy enough to quote the sleepy and gorgeous Beatles song. (Like Beyonce’s overrated Lemonade, this one features lots of little snippets of other artists. You decide why, I’m afraid me stating my own guess would reveal me to be too much of a cynic.)
As suggested, the highlights here are fewer and lower than on Channel Orange: opener “Nikes” features a pitch-shifted hook that’s off-putting and ear-worming in that order, and Ocean’s second verse is a reminder that Frank Ocean’s rapping skills are actually formidable (“…rain…glitter…”). Producer Jamie xx and ex-Vampire Weekender Rostam Bostmanglij create some of the album’s most vivid colour on the following “Ivy” (creating an appropriate soundscape to “I thought I was dreaming when you said you loved me”), and that song has the turn-of phrase, “I broke your heart last week / You’ll probably feel better by the weekend,” which to me is sadly indicative of the fickler treatment of love these years. And “Nights,” not a personal highlight, is worth hearing due to the transition of its two parts.
And yes, Andre 3000 drops one of the best things that’s happened this year on “Solo (Reprise)”, where it seems to me like Andre 3000 internalized Kendrick Lamar’s “For Free” (ie. the way the piano line jerks at the 0:26 mark and drops into a glitched-out section) and then showed him how it’s done – the flow is even knottier than Kendrick’s on that track and the song is about half the length. Quoting Pretty Much Amazing’s Luke Fowler: “In the span of one minute, he transitions from humor (“so low that I can see under the skirt of an ant”) to apathy (“when I hear that another kid is shot by the po-po it ain’t an event/no more”) to anger (“over half of these hoes had work done/saying they want something real from a man”) to defeat (“so low that I am no rookie but feel like a kid/looking at the other kids”) to a final, crushing unifying statement: ‘Was I working just way too hard?’” And that’s without mentioning how he leverages the phonetic similarities between “Pussy” and “Pesos” (genuinely surprised if a rapper hasn’t done this before), or how he runs through arcane multi-syllables as if they were monosyllabic (hurdling over “Geronimo”, “astonishment while I’m on punishment”). Just like in 2015 (when he stole the show on Erykah Badu’s But You Caint Use My Phone), Andre 3000 delivers one of the greatest verses of the year.
(It says a lot that the best song on this album is an 80-second interlude completely written and performed by someone not named Frank Ocean, don’t it?)
To the impossible question of how do you follow something like that up, Frank Ocean gives us “Pretty Sweet,” which manages to continue the momentum with one of the best moments on the album: when the drum programming comes in under the vocal melody, it’s like watching a video of sunrise on fast-forward. (These two short tracks amount to the album’s climax, and just like on the opening stretch, he cuts it with that awful skit and then proceeds an elongated cool-down.)
That’s all good, but am I the only one who thinks that “Solo” (which starts with such momentum; “Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself”) could have only been better serviced if he nudged it along with some drums? Or that “Ivy” ends on an even clumsier note than “Pink Matter” did, with a histrionic scream that isn’t even built towards? Or that the first half of “Self Control” is boring, and not unlike the douchey acoustic music that permeated my university halls in residence? Or that this sort of music has always led to results that are more often interesting than they are good? Or that the songwriting on this album neither sustains 60 minutes nor justifies the hype? Or that the mere prospect of a contemporary R&B artist creating a mostly beatless wash isn’t commendable on its own?
Was 2016 a good year in music? Fuck yeah, it was, despite a slow start. But it certainly wasn’t because sleeping pill records delivered after years of anticipation and hype. And I’m not just talking about this one.