Friday, November 18, 2016

Channel Orange: Review

Four years ago, Frank Ocean released his first studio album, Channel Orange, and overnight, became the Great New Hope of RnB. Yet, Channel Orange clearly wasn’t really RnB in the traditional sense. Ocean had, and still has, a charming—or, depending on your outlook, frustrating— aversion to verse-chorus-verse songwriting. With his new album, Blonde, he pushes his lush, languid sound further, and the results are just as stunning.

Blonde, which is different in its LP and Apple Music versions, kicks off with "Nikes", the anti-album opener. Ocean sings in a heavily treated voice about Carmelo Anthony and A$AP Rocky and two dozen other things; it’s only after the three-minute mark that we hear his voice clearly. The lyrics reference drugs (“Acid on me like the rain/weed crumbles into glitter”) and complicated relationships (“I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you”)—themes that’ll recur through Blonde—but with Ocean, the joy isn’t so much in the allusions and wordplay, amusing as those can be, but in the delivery—now jabbing like a lovelorn boxer, now relaxing into a seductive croon.

Even more than Channel Orange, this album is RnB refracted, reengineered into something that contains its DNA but not its traditional structures. "Ivy", co-written with ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, has Ocean singing over a dream-pop-like guitar figure. "Pretty Sweet" begins with an orchestral squall and ends with children’s voices singing “We know you’re sweet like a sucka”. The meditative, touching "White Ferrari" uses the melody and one line from The Beatles’ "Here, There and Everywhere". There are a few guest spots: Beyoncé and James Blake contribute discreet vocals, Kendrick Lamar a brief rap on "Skyline To", André 3000 the album’s most agitated moment on "Solo (Reprise)". But mostly, we’re alone with Ocean’s languid, druggy melancholia.

Unlike like D’Angelo with Black Messiah or Beyoncé with Lemonade, Ocean doesn’t seem to want to start a revolution. Trayvon Martin is mentioned, and a hurricane, but the songs mostly revolve around love and sex and being in the public eye: Drakean themes, but explored by a warier artist. Ocean’s fealty to hip hop shows in the rushed metre of his singing, the density of his writing, and that fact that Blonde is a producer’s, rather than a player’s, album. Sometimes, a bit of instrumentation breaks through—woozy keyboards on "Skyline To", Big Star-like guitar chimes on "Nights"—but you never get a mental image of a singer recording with actual musicians. It doesn’t matter. Dense and sexy and meandering in a way that only Ocean can pull off, Blonde is an immensely satisfying sophomore effort.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

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