Frank Ocean’s “Blond” Reviewed
I really liked that video album, Endless, last week. It was just a black and white film of Frank Ocean and a couple of friends building a staircase, with original songs (plus an Isley brothers cover) on the soundtrack. It works like background, both front and behind. There is a stark beauty to the video and the music is the equal of anything he has ever done. Like all the best ambient music, it works somewhere in the back of your head, it lulls you awake, it drifts you. I loved it, maybe a little more than I loved Blonde (or Blond -I don’t know why any one would think that dropping the “e” makes it sexually ambiguous…). And definitely more than Channel Orange, which I no longer hate though I will never love.
The thing about the 45 minute Endless (the uncut version lasts 140 HOURS), is that it repays concentration with a distilled sense of well being. If you have ever watched window cleaners, or house painters, car mechanics: anybody who is very good at certain forms of manual labor, not factory workers, but gardeners, you will get the same restful intentness. The music is quite as good as the album proper, Blond, it must be from the same sessions. If you do a straight up comparison between the songs on Endless and the songs on Blond, Blond is better, but if you listen from one end(less) to the other, the video wins. It doesn’t have the two, really stupid, spoken word tracks, and it doesn’t have the “I know you’re an artist but what the hell have you put someone’s spoken word collage for five minutes at the end of your album, for?” thud that completes Blond.
However, Endless and Blond, share the same thematic elegance, while Endless has nothing as great as “Solo”, and “Self Control” and “Futura Free” (“Commes des Garcon” is pretty close), they both seem to float into your consciousness, and even the best moments on both recordings, are ephemeral, as changing as the singer’s love affairs, as ambiguous as his sexuality These are three elegant and beautiful songs of complete emotional diaspora -no place home . The songs come and they go, and they don’t work at the front of your brain, either. Nothing here is a lasting impression, except Andre 3000’s rap, which comes out of nowhere.
But this isn’t a problem really, if the album isn’t sticky in the usual sense, it is conceptually sticky, as a whole, it is a story album of love in retreat, of loneliness and how sex doesn’t fix it. And also, something you do with your hands. The sound isn’t in one place, in his glossy mag (all cars and naked guys), “Boys Don’t Cry”, Ocean detailed all his favorite songs, from The Cure to Curtis Mayfield, and in theory at least, his r&b is a multi-culti cluster fuck. Yet, it isn’t really that either: rather, it is neo-soul meets Canada Dry electronic doze dream. Fronted by “Nike” s” but defined by a cover of the Carpenters “Close To You”, none of it, except maybe the Beatles quote, is more important than the song as a whole.
This duality, this song as a whole and song in parts, is fundamental to Ocean. Born Chris Breaux, he escaped from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and moved to the West Coast. If it was me, I wouldn’t have taken a bath for ten years, Breaux embraced the enemy, embraced the wetness, and like women as a sex, defined himself in the sea opposed to the male land: in a very pure sense, that is what comprises the two and as Ocean’s world was destroyed by one, he embraced it and it became the other part of him. Channel Orange at its most personal is happening on the beach on the Pacific Ocean.
Channel Ocean might not be as good as Blond, but it has greater moments, stuff like “Super Rich Kids” and “Thinking About You” are better than anything on Blond, but the mood isn’t better and it doesn’t instigate as well. Blond is a greater work of art and when heard in conjunction with Endless, it is a real transformation, Ocean, boy to man going, from disaster to desire to disaster. An expression of the otherness of the artist.
If it was just better. If only the songs were stronger, more supple, Ocean is a true musical artist, no doubt, but there is something not strong enough about the songs, they don’t stay with you. They are sweetly dissipating, like all these romances.