In the excellent documentary 30th Century Man, Brian Eno, clearly hamming it up a touch for the cameras, mused, with pious exasperation, that pop music’s proclivity for ingenuity had stagnated. What he was implying was more forgiving; bands often aspire to be different, but, due to influences and external pressures, they just end up sounding like Talking Heads, or, as Scott Walker did earlier in his career, compromising their ideas by capitulating to the contemporary popular musical aesthetic. To be fair, Eno’s right, there is no accounting for taste, and he didn’t say new ideas aren’t being offered and frontiers not discovered, they are, most just happen to live on the periphery of the popular consciousness.
Unlike Scott Walker, Frank Ocean isn’t a peripheral figure. His first album “Channel Orange” was met with considerable critical and commercial success. It harnessed Soul and R’n’b, with a dash of electronica, to imbue omniscient commentaries on the vapid materialistic hedonism that characterises our times and to counterpoint Freudian analyses of his past experiences and choices. “Blond” follows in the same vein, but with far more lyrical ambiguity and compositional dissonance. The result is the album of the year, by some distance too. It’s the perfect aesthetic for our times; uncertainly certain of itself.
Even though he’s capable and willing to exist in the vanguard of avant-garde experimentation, I’d imagine the media’s tedious over-contextualisation of his work is probably more tiresome for Ocean than it is for anyone else, even if he’s found a way to revel in it by toying with us. His announcement on “Channel Orange” was striking in its overtness, whereas on “Blond” you’re left to sift through hints (including the alternate spellings of the album title), often couched by gender neutral lyrics and perspectives, a technique so often successfully wielded by Prince. Ocean’s retreat from overtness confirms that he and the album are immune to conventional labels, because they simply aren’t adequate. Blond’s ambiguity has allowed Ocean to cleverly overturn the post “Channel Orange” context in a number of ways; he’s rendered his recherché state, an oxymoronic otherness, as irrelevances by approaching them as matter of fact. While this won’t stop the pining by some for more revelations about his enigmatic self (and a resolution to the dull subsidiary debates, such as: can he really be gay or bi when he operates in a sub-genre of the black music industry where homophobia and homophobic slurs are common?), the lack of clarity allows the depth of his new work to gain traction. It’s the only source to work with, meaning you concentrate on his profoundly shattered musings, which leave a broken mirror, a black one even, of cultural and personal introspection. Ocean’s shards of analysis, in particular Siegfried’s dystopian existentialism, whose lyrical construct is reminiscent of Dylan’s sudden juxtaposing of distance and intimacy on “Blood on the Tracks”, resonate thanks to their universality.
What makes Ocean’s work so interesting is that nobody else is making music, popular music specifically, with this amount of scope or self-awareness under such scrutinizing expectations. Sans the contextual understanding, a first listen evokes an association with the mixtape form, the songs heave with ideas and voices, there’s abrasiveness, certain moments and tracks sound under produced (almost to the point of being sparse at times) and the compositions are unpredictable. Ocean veers from soulful singing to rhyming wordplay at a pinch. The majority of Blond has been fastidiously constructed, but with the end result sounding organically spontaneous. What conventional sounds and structures there are don’t linger, indeed the only lasting R’n’b pop song comes from Ocean’s soulful twang remaining steady over the formulaic ‘Pink and White’, which appropriately belies its lyrical content.
“Channel Orange” affirmed Ocean’s grasp of melody and his judgement in utilising the correct fluctuations and mutations to suit his lyrical content. ‘Pyramids’ in particular, is the structural template for many of the tracks on “Blond”, but now the songs morph into others yet are still reminiscent or recognisable, in some way or other, to the former incarnation. When a different accent is placed on the song’s structure, as found on ‘Nights’, it becomes transformative. While the metamorphasis sounds dramatic, technically, it is only a recalibration; the guitar and drum layers of the song’s first half accelerate then collapse into time with a stripped down hip-hop beat, providing a more sombre canvas for Ocean’s narration of futile repetitiveness that he finds synonymous with struggles from the past. Also new – Ocean creates different voices by distorting his. The use of auto-tune on ‘Nikes’ lamenting Trayvon Martin’s demise, abrasively pained crescendos on ‘Ivy’, the effeminate high pitch on ‘Self-control’, all add distance from Ocean’s own. Yeah, they are his voices, but are they truly? Their use prevents intimacy and exclusivity over personalised narrations, and or allows Ocean to assume another perspective seamlessly.
Even the humorous interludes, admittedly anecdotal and glib, continue to focus on the album’s core message – grappling with the effects of introspection and our odd ways and means of attempting to find identity, place and security (all reference – some of them Ocean confesses to numerous times – the use of modern opiates; be it social media, hero worship, alcohol and drug use, even vanity ‘some tattooed eyelids on a facelift’) in a world where the road to contentment seems to be tantalisingly just out of reach for so many of us.
It strikes me as possible that Ocean’s content to exist in this ridiculous chasm of distracted vapidity and petty hypocrisy, ‘Solo’ as it were, where, by comparison, he stands out and the standard of work reveals his self-assuredness. That’s too nuanced for some who were and are confused by the form of his initial candidness and his (apparent) subsequent aversion to our need to incessantly define him. We expect people, particularly the famous, successful and wealthy, to adhere a standard we believe we cannot achieve in normalcy, to be sure of who and what they are (at least outwardly), to be content. Ocean’s telling us that we’re mistaken to assume that talent and success should overwhelm doubt or neuter the desire to be different.
Sarcasm, laced with irony, is used to chide this double standard on ‘Futua Free’, the album’s final track. Ocean’s candid for a change – he’s conflicted and bemused by the nature of success. Still, he knows he’s just like everyone else in one sense – it’s preferable to his previous existence of earning minimum wage and standing on his feet for seven dollars an hour. However, with gallows humour, he considers the only path that can both cement legendary status within, and contentment with, mainstream culture, by viewing the demise of Tupac and the urban legend of his death being faked through a positive lens; ‘don’t let ‘em find Tupac’, ‘he evade the press/he escape the stress’. It’s one of the few clear messages on the album, and it’s true, in the multi-media era the only way to successfully maintain a symbiosis of unresolved intrigue and fame is to die young or disappear. There is no third way, but Blond comes as close as is possible to achieving it.