Blonde, Orange, Endless: Take your time, Frank Ocean

You can’t hurry art was what Lauryn Hill said when the Internet hated her back in May for showing up too late at her concert. After all, the fans had paid a lot of money and Lauryn Hill hasn’t released a studio album in 18 years. Because Frank Ocean also made us wait much longer than he had previously announced, many started calling him the next Lauryn Hill.

In early August, when his website boysdontcry gave first serious hints at possible new music, the Internet swirled into a frenzy of paranoia, hate, excitement and depression. For the next twenty days it was hard to not hourly hit boysdontcry.co to learn something new about Frank Ocean’s project. We desperately needed his perspective on things. With his visual album Endless and his second (real) studio album Blond(e) Frank has released so much at once that some already fear he would now take a fifteen-year hiatus.

“Work hard in silence, let your success be your noise“

And still, Frank Ocean is unlike Lauryn Hill. Sure, somehow he must like the hype around his music. Otherwise Apple would not have been able to close the exclusive deal for Endless and Blond(e). But Channel Orange was published just four years ago, and Frank is not Rihanna or The Weeknd, flooding the market with their output. From what we hear, he is a perfectionist working feverishly to complete his albums, 16 hours a day, carving out everything superfluous from thousands of song ideas, digging for gold, obsessively improving the tiniest details. “Work hard in silence, let your success be your noise,“ he says. It is clear that he considers himself some kind of artwork — singer, songwriter, rapper, social critic, film critic, model, author and artist — rather than just an R&B singer. And a true artist wouldn’t publish anything unfinished, would he? Does Frank Ocean owe us anything at all? And if so, what does he owe us? Trash or treat?

What was the point with Endless?

Endless, released on a Friday morning in mid-August, is not only a partly absurd meditation about recording music, Frank is making a clear statement with this video: Recording an album is craft, writing is craft, being creative is craft. As an artist, you must not give into the first idea or the first impulse that pops into you mind, you need to investigate, try and try harder, discard, refine, polish… until you have something truly unheard or unseen. And the next day you might even delete the tape. Everything is lost, you have to start again from scratch, but only when the pain is over. Capisce? I hope someday he will explain this in more detail.

Anyway, Endless, the 45-minute music video that shows him as a carpenter in designer sweaters working in a white-painted warehouse, sounds thrilling, twisted, obsessed with detail and sometimes even charming (see At Your Best You Are Love, a cover of the Isley Brothers song from 1976 and a successor of Aaliyah’s cover version from 1994. Frank Ocean had already published it on his tumblr last summer). Is it possible that he hints at Marcel Duchamp’s readymades with this video?

Blond(e) — a fragmented explosion composed of ideas

Blond(e), the “real album“, is just as stubborn. Frank hates stereotypes whether regarding music or his own sexual orientation. Consistently, he definitely does not try to live up to superlatives as “R&B Album of the Year“ with this album. Channel Orange already sounded like nothing you had known before, despite the comparisons to Stevie Wonder or Prince and the hints at Mary J. Blige or Elton John. So this is what he had to do with Blond(e): He had to “disappoint“ our expectations once again — whether positively or negatively. After all, that’s his trademark.

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In fact, Blond(e) is excessively unpredictable. Maybe the most traditional aspect of the album is the fact that the chorus of Ivy, an Indie Liebestraum with a scary ending, is repeated twice (I thought that I was dreaming / When you said you loved me — goes straight into your ears and stays there). Apart from that, Blond(e) is a fragmented hour of music made out of countless ideas, snippets, samples, phrases, melodies, allusions, styles. Aside from André 3000 (Solo Reprise, rather annoying) and Kim Burrell (Godspeed), Frank’s cameos merge with the music. You can hardly hear Beyoncé singing some background vocals in the Pharrell Williams production Pink + White.

Frank Ocean also disappears every now and then — to listen to what Sebastian Akchoté-Bozovic has to say about Facebook and his ex (Facebook Story) or how his mama warns him about drugs and alcohol (Be Yourself). Right on the following track, ambiguously titled Solo (So low), he dismisses her advice. On Seigfried with its complex chord changes, Frank Ocean sounds like an apparition, and the song could as well be an alternate version to Stevie Wonder’s 1973 song Visions. “I’m not brave,“ he claims, followed by his trademark background echoes (“Brave!“). In an interlude, he puts Burt Bacharach’s tearjerker (They Long To Be) Close To You through the vocoder. Nikes, at the beginning of the album, is a luxurious song about consumer critique, deviously and ingeniously texted, with an equally luxurious video. Side note: Kajal looks good on Frank Ocean.

Contradictory truths

Blond(e) addresses all topics you would expect from an R&B artist (in the broad sense): drugs, sex, love, consumerism, summer, even cars. But unlike many of his peers, Frank does not simply celebrate these issues. They are means to an end — just like all of the stylistic elements that, taken together, sound like a compendium. He presents contradictory truths and versions (I’ve got twoooo versions!), he has fun switching roles, he never states the obvious and he isn’t even scared of annoying us (Pretty Sweet).

You have to take your time to “get“ the lyrics. Frank doesn’t want to make us feel too comfortable. There’s always something new, many songs sound like sketches and you can rarely sing along at the first listen. The strange thing is that the melodies stick to your head even if they seem unobtrusive or inaccessible at the first or second listen, and his voice often sounds almost as good as on Channel Orange (Skyline To, Self Control). A near-perfect album.

Please take all the time you need to record your next album, Frank. Waiting for good music may be hard. But what is even harder is waiting for good music just to get a mass product. You can’t hurry art.

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