Arts

Photo: CC, Andy Holmes.

Four years after his landmark debut record Channel Orange, the iconic R&B recluse Frank Ocean reemerged and delivered some absolutely stunning new material.

In January 2015, Ocean announced the title of his new album and accompanying magazine then entitled Boys Don’t Cry and teased a release date in July of the same year. Summer came and went with no album to speak of, leaving a hoard of increasingly agitated fans thirsting for new material.

Throughout the ensuing year, fans were teased by rumours and disappointed as each Friday ended albumless.

Once again July passed, and fans reached new levels of anger and frustration. However, things started turning around on Aug. 1 when a live streaming video appeared depicting a minimalist warehouse workspace and Ocean partaking in a woodworking project.

Over the course of 15 days, Ocean was present and aloof at various times as he constructed his mystery work. Everything culminated on Aug. 16, when new music began playing as Ocean finished assembling his “stairway to heaven”. Shortly afterwards, the nearly 45-minute visual album titled Endless was made available on Apple Music.

However, it wasn’t long before reports emerged that a more “traditional” album would also be released by the weekend.

Finally, on Aug. 20, Ocean released a 17-track album entitled Blonde, also exclusive to Apple Music.

Now, musically speaking, Frank Ocean is at his absolute best on both projects. To be clear, Endless is much more of a soundtrack to his art project, one that is filled with covers of songs and shorter interludes that come together in a rudimentary album form.

Conversely, Blonde is a sprawling, emotive, compelling, and concise album that forces us to forgive Ocean for essentially ghosting on us for four years.

The highs on Endless are soaring, but some shorter tracks fade easily into the background—likely on purpose.

An immediate standout is the morose “U-N-I-T-Y”, where Ocean showcases his rapping skills that have become a larger part of his music with these recent releases.

“My hands fatiguing off the opus/Kept it underground, I focus/I feel afterlife, 6 under oath, don’t want no hokus pokus,” raps Ocean, showing the struggles of a star trying to follow up a legendary release.

The criminally short “Commes Des Garçons” is a punchy and fun track that breaks up the mood nicely, before it turns down again on the second half of the project.

The tracks “Rushes” and “Rushes To” are stellar in closing out the visual album, providing a great culmination point for everything to wrap up on. In a way, they are also the most applicable transition over to Blonde.

Endless – 8/10

Frank-Ocean-Blonde

The album begins with the single “Nikes”, a woozy and vocally modulated anthem, chocked full of sometimes clever and other times poignant lines.

Ocean poses the lines “She said she need that ring like Carmelo/Must be on that white like Othello,” comparing a woman’s want of an engagement ring to the championship desires of NBA player Carmelo Anthony, evidently absurd enough to be fueled by cocaine.

Later he sings “RIP Pimp C/RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me,” lamenting the fall of Texas hip-hop legend and the well-publicized death of black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012.

“Ivy” has an upbeat, pop-rock feel with deep lyrics about truly growing up, something that is a theme for the 28-year-old Ocean on this project.

“Pink + White” is funky and layered, sounding like something straight off of Channel Orange, while “Self Control” and “Nights” sound new and distinct.

“Noses on a rail, little virgin where’s the white?/You cut your hair, but you used to live a blinded life/Wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice/Wish our time was right,” he sings on “Self Control”, a sad yet beautiful tale about losing innocence along with someone you love.

The project is light on guests, and most are just used in the background apart from Andre 3000 on “Solo (Reprise)”, where the legend pops up on his fellow-recluse’s album to remind us that if he really wanted, he’d be the best rapper in the world.

Listening to Blonde feels like one of those early fall days where the sun is still shining, but the air is much chillier than it was a few weeks prior. On the surface the album is nearly happy, but in many ways it’s still heartbreaking and sad.

The attention to detail and the variety in instrumentation that Ocean curates on the album is unparalleled, and his maturity shines bright in his songwriting, experimentation, vocal performance, and overall artistry.

Frank Ocean disappeared for a long time and we all knew it would be big when he came back, but this is much bigger and better than any of us probably could’ve expected. For that, Mr. Ocean, we thank you.

Blonde – 10/10

Listen to 30-second previews of each song here, full album available on Apple Music.