“A beautiful paradox.”
Once upon a time, on the release day of an album, you could go online or into a shop (if you like to be different) and buy it. Simple.
Alas, things change. These days you can’t do that. Oh no, no, no. To get hold of a sought after album, like Frank Ocean’s Blond, is a mission. You have to search internet forums, read endless articles (like this one) to work out the actual release date or whether it will be available on Spotify, Apple music or the underdog, Tidal. Reasons for this are probably because the financial tides flow towards live music. Record sales are no longer essential. So, setting music lovers off on a wild goose chase seems rational. Yet, this is only my pessimistic view.
Delay after delay, secret post after secret post and I was getting a bit pissed off. Finally, it became available on Apple music, 48 hours after Endless (the 45-minute visual album) dropped online. I have only just got round to having a proper, legal listen to it as I’m a Spotify user. Thankfully, the pretentious release method is overshadowed by the sheer, down-played brilliance of this album.
The opening track ‘Nike’ sets the tone of this understated quality. It has a slower more lethargic beat than the opening of Orange. The sonic-field of synths and distortion is meandering and challenging at first, but leaves an impression on you. Ocean’s voice fluctuates from computerized slur to that recognizable, tender tone that we all fell for when we heard his debut, Channel Orange. Images like – ‘weed crumbles in the glitter’- offer snap-shots into Ocean’s consciousness and experiences. Although they flash by, they form an immediacy that contradicts the song’s drowsy atmosphere. The poignant lines ‘RIP Pimp C, RIP Trayvon, a ni**a that look just like me’, point to a political context. A lazy person would probably then say, ‘Oh like Kendrick Lamar’, whose album, To Pimp A Butterfly, focused on the racial issues within America. No – Blond is an entirely different beast to Lamar’s jewel of a record.
The wider sphere of politics doesn’t seem a significant focus for Ocean this time. That line in ‘Nike’ is the only clear political poke. The Jamie xx produced song ‘Ivy’, looks back at the charm of innocence – ‘We didn’t give a fuck back then’. Similarly, ‘Pink + White’(Featuring Beyoncé) burns with nostalgic, adolescent energy. The lyric about ‘stealing granny cigs’ puts you in your own reminiscent daze. As a result, Ocean gives an impression that the artistic zeitgeist of D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar, however important and inspiring, is something that must be left to wonder at. Ocean is looking to a new horizon. Is it a political one? Certainly, George Orwell’s famous line lingers in my brain at this point: ‘the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude’. I wonder if Ocean feels the same.
Whatever horizon Ocean is looking for; it is certainly a unique one. This record is a unique mixture of neo-R&B, gospel and hip hop – so much so that it is quite disorientating. ‘Solo’ is the nearest to conventional that Ocean dares to go and that’s about as near as the Brexit vote was. As the organ lulls in the background you keep expecting the beat to kick in. It never does, not just on ‘Solo’, but most of the album. A few snare beats materialize, only to fall apart, merging into conversations (‘Future Free’) or 80s-style guitar licks (‘Nights’). You quickly become acclimatized to the minimalist and unconventional production choices. It’s impressively and refreshingly original.
Everyone will forge their own narrative structure onto this record. To me ‘Facebook story’ and ‘Close to you’ clearly have corresponding roots, as does ‘Seigfried’ and ‘Solo’. You will probably disagree. Nowadays, most albums have clear messages and resolutions. Blonde and a handful of others do not. Here, clarity is lost in shadow. Revelations are partnered with troubles. Blonde is an album that you cannot just dip into. You should bathe in it.
Verdict: Drug-hazed dreams and insular musings – Blonde’s meaning seems lost but also found. Yes, it’s complicated and at times, laborious. Though, I think that’s the point. Blonde is a beautiful paradox. Unexplainable but very, very true.