Four years since hit LP channel ORANGE, Louisiana rapper Frank Ocean returns with not one, but two albums: the bizarre visual album Endless & his official second LP Blond.
The wait for Ocean’s next album has become legend in itself with constant delays, strange little teases and title changes with the original Boys Don’t Cry making the rounds. It was to much surprise then that Frank Ocean released two albums consecutively through iTunes & Apple Music.
So, having dedicated so much time listening to all 35 tracks, how does Ocean’s latest project live up to the hype? Pretty well, to be honest.
Endless is a 45 minute visual album, streamed through Apple Music, that is some of the most experimental music Ocean has ever done. Played to a bizarre video of Ocean working on a spiral staircase in a warehouse, the 18 tracks are a collection of songs that will certainly test the patience of the most tolerant listener. With no real indication of when tracks start or close, it can be difficult to identify each track on its own merits. As an assemblage of songs though, it proves to be a trippy and interesting album that utilises a whole range of instruments, tones and featuring artists (that includes James Blake & Jonny Greenwood).
Certainly, one of the strangest tracks is the closer where the computerised voice of German artist Wolfgang Tillmans reads out an advertisement for a Samsung Galaxy phone. The whole purpose of this streamed album may seem confounding to most (even I’m struggling to comprehend the overall point of this LP), but it’s an interesting listen that shows Ocean is unafraid of challenging listeners, especially for a relatively commercial music release. It certainly does come off as pretentious at times and I would recommend listening to it rather than watching the literally ‘endless’ process of constructing a spiral staircase, but has enough interesting material to reach its conclusion.
The main draw though is Ocean’s official second studio LP Blond. Having been someone who didn’t quite love channel ORANGE as many others did, ‘Blond’ is definitely a more rewarding album experience. There may be no standout poppy tracks (Nikes may be the closest), but it shows Ocean’s penchant for storytelling and taking risks.
Starting off the album with ‘Nikes‘ (that was released as a single and a trippy music video), the track is pensive with its use of downbeat synthesisers evoking an underwater tone. Some may criticise the pitched voice of Ocean but it ultimately works in favour of the melancholic tone.
‘Ivy‘ comes next, a pleasant track where Ocean reflects on a failed relationship when he was young and deeply in love. The third song, ‘Pink + White‘ opens up one of the album’s running themes of drug use, in this case how a relationship slowly crumbles once the high wears off. With supporting vocals from Beyoncé effectively accentuating Ocean’s lyrics, it is an emotionally potent track that continues the album’s intimate tone.
‘Be Yourself‘ is where Ocean starts to take chances with the interesting inclusion of his mother leaving a phone message prohibiting him not to go down a path of the hedonistic pursuit of alcohol and drugs. This plays into Ocean’s own issues with drugs that flows nicely into the heavily drug-themed track ‘Solo‘. While one can certainly debate the meaning of ‘solo’ as either the loneliness on the road or getting high to fulfil a feeling of happiness, it’s a sad reflection of the damaging effects drugs have had on Ocean.
The ninth track ‘Nights‘ then takes the album towards a heavy focus on story-telling, splitting the song into two distinct parts. Ocean starts with a more traditionally rap-heavy section and then with the excellent use of an electric guitar, transitions into a slower melancholic R&B vibe where he opens up about moving away from Louisiana and a relationship that followed as a result.
Andre 3000 takes over track 10 with ‘Solo (Reprise)‘ with a fast beat that some may find too daunting. While my issue was its short length, it was great to hear his voice used to such emotional effect and ultimately works within Ocean’s overarching narrative.
‘Facebook Story‘ continues Ocean’s trend of taking risks by having French producer SebastiAn recounting a failed relationship online. The theme of love in the digital age and how the virtual world is changing it plays heavily into the next song, an interesting electronic remix of Stevie Wonder’s version of ‘Close To You‘.
‘White Ferrari’, ‘Siegfried’ & ‘Godspeed’ continue the melancholic tone of the album, each telling an interesting narrative. If one is worried that listeners will come out of Blond depressed, ‘Futura Free‘ closes on a nine minute track that reflects on individuality with an interesting use of a silent interlude and a second part dominated by interviews. Certainly not a hit song, but a nice hopeful conclusion to a predominantly sombre album.
Blond is not an album that is filled with pop songs and it is certainly not going for the more commercially acceptable vibe of channel ORANGE, but for me, that really works. The album reflects on Ocean’s excellent ability to express his thoughts and explore powerful themes through poetic lyrics and melancholic beats. Endless may have had the same aim, but structurally it worked more as a nice collection of sounds. Blond is clearer in its expression of exploring themes. Even the tracks that take risks with the inclusion of short, talky sections, are placed to support the narrative.
Not all the tracks work though. ‘Skyline To’, his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar and some of the other middle tracks such as ‘Self-Control’ or ‘Pretty Sweet’ don’t have the emotional potency much of the album contains.
Considering how much content he has released though (a whopping 35 tracks), I feel Frank Ocean has taken many risks and for the most part, has delivered on a quality end product.
Sure, many fans may still feel resentment towards the whole tirade that was building up over four years, but the two albums show the maturation of a talented artist that is willing to challenge listeners with a deeply melancholic and reflective collection of songs. Boys may not cry, but listeners can and probably will.
What’s your opinion? Did Frank Ocean deliver? Which album did you prefer of the two? Comment below.