FRANK OCEAN – Blond/Blonde (self-released): For better or worse, Blond was destined to be this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly—instant hyperbolic reviews by both fans and critics regardless of whether it deserved it or not. I think it does, for the most part. (I am a bit suspicious, though, about how you can be hubristic enough churn out a 1,600-word review less than a week after the album drops claiming to understand something about the album that most other people don’t.) But unlike To Pimp a Butterfly, Blonde is not nearly as lyrically thick. While others are free to parse lyrics line-by-line in order to understand every single reference and what those references are meant to signify, the surface meaning seems pretty clear across the board: Ocean’s ambivalent about the fame and fortune he’s received, he’s no longer with a lover who had a profound impact on him, and he feels the temptation to be nostalgic, ultra.
Musically, Blonde is like an orderly version of Endless—cleaner cut with more distinctive start-and-stop points while still successfully stringing together the illusion of a dream, a kind of waking life where so many moments and feelings are experienced simultaneously. His liberal use of piano and organ underscores the almost religious catharsis he feels in his series of confessionals about loneliness. There are no drums on “Solo” (or many of the songs, actually) for example, just an organ backing Ocean up as talks about staying up all night with a stash of weed as his phone’s battery dwindles waiting for that absent lover to call. It’s the finger-keyed piano punch descending from heaven on “Pink + White” that establishes the rhythm better than the spare beat he latches onto it. The low hum of an underwater piano lays the groundwork for the spoken-word sections: a telephone message from his mother instructing him that he never try marijuana or alcohol, a Frenchman recalling how his refusal to friend his girlfriend on Facebook led to their breakup to his total disbelief, and the second half of “Futura Free,” featuring a series of snippets from home interviews with Ocean’s little brother.
Coupled with words that might well be brilliant all the way through even if I can only find striking moments here and there, a lot of the lyrics read more like someone who tried to scribble down as best as they could remember a poem they heard in a dream, and if you can get in a way to alter your mind the way Frank’s altered his (with a seeming shit ton of weed) the illusion at least half works. On the ever-evolving “Nights,” which might be the album’s best song, the one line that catches my attention hard is when he fondly reminisces how dining at Shoney’s was a special occasion for his family growing up. But he stops there. Unlike Kendrick, who’s anxiety stems from survivor’s guilt and a real, open, and explicit concerned interest in the country’s racial divide and political direction, Frank’s starts with uncertainty as to what he ought to do with his life now that he’s on top looking down rather than vice versa. For Kendrick the answer is to keep chugging in the hope that he can be a clear voice in a volatile time. For Frank? Couldn’t say. I’ve never had so much money as to feel the kind of dread that special mode of boredom can foster. A MINUS