The new rules of the struggling music industry require creativity – and, failing that, at least a certain degree of surprise. As income from album sales has dropped off precipitously, the industry has lost what used to be its key index of commercial success. Now this is measured in a much more convoluted and complex way – by a mixture of radio play, use of online streaming services, live concerts and advertising contracts.
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Under these circumstances, the need to make a big impression with a new album is more critical than ever. Frank Ocean, the superb R&B singer who released an amazing album, “Channel Orange,” in 2012, took his time before coming out with his latest album, “Blonde,” at the end of this past month. After receiving such great acclaim and raising expectations, Ocean delayed the release of his follow-up effort far longer than would normally be the case. When the album finally did come out, the timing came as a surprise, as there was very little prior notice.
Ocean did not invent this strategy. Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and others have used it in the past couple of years, but it was still effective this time too. First, a 45-minute “visual album” called “Endless” was released online. The music was experimental, and bore little resemblance to the pop gems that made him a star four years ago. On the visual album, essentially a long, monotonous video, Ocean is seen engaged in, among other things, carpentry work and building a crooked spiral staircase, as mainly electronic music plays in the background. Two days later, “Blonde” came out – which turned out to be the real album and aroused much interest in the music press.
And “Blonde” really is very interesting, which is all the more important considering that, four years ago, Ocean practically had this genre to himself. But now the field has become much more crowded. The formula employed by the successful Canadian R&B singer The Weeknd is influenced in large part by Ocean, who created an effective modern connection between hip-hop and R&B. Drake also learned a thing or two from him, and even Kanye West, who was on the scene long before, seems to have been influenced by Ocean. In fact, if you were to do a blind listen to all four singers one after the other, it could be a little tricky to tell them apart.
Ocean comes to this shared space from the R&B side, but he moves easily to rap and back. He has a terrific voice, with rich shading, though to serve the song he occasionally slides into a deliberately colder tone that is devoid of feeling.
“Blonde” is a personal, slightly melancholy album. It has a more modest and intimate sound than his previous album. It relies mainly on keyboards and guitar, and its scarcity of percussion is quite unusual for an album by a black artist. Since the musical accompaniment is so minimal at times, you can almost hear the empty space on a few of the tracks, which come across as unfinished sketches. Although the album boasts a prestigious guest list, some of them (Beyoncé, Lamar) only do some backup singing, and their presence is hardly felt.
The only guest performer who really makes a star turn here is the rapper André 3000 of the duo OutKast, in a brief and clever take-down of rappers who’ve made it big without necessarily bothering to write their own material (e.g., Drake). Ocean’s mother also makes an appearance in one interlude, lecturing her son – in a voice mail, apparently – about the harmful effects of marijuana. To judge from the hazy feel of some of the songs, her warning doesn’t seem to have made a very big impression.
A personal tone
In general, Ocean doesn’t obey the old, conservative rules that defined what R&B is. Like West (and Prince, before both of them), he continually flirts with “white” music and white pop and rock groups. On this album, he quotes The Beatles, Elliot Smith and – could it really be? – The Carpenters. His writing skills are impressive, though at times it’s not so clear what he’s talking about. And although the tone and subject matter are very personal, he doesn’t give away too much information. There is a single mention, in the opening song, “Nikes,” of the intense turmoil in American race relations of late, and it, too, is most personal. Ocean talks about a young black man who was shot to death by a white man just because of his appearance: “RIP, Trayvon [Martin]. That nigga look just like me.”
His sexual identity, a few years after his coming out caused a big stir, gets one brief direct mention (but his readiness to address it at all in this context is highly unusual, in a culture where homophobia is still nearly the last bastion of the old conservatism). Ocean, who is just 28, spends a lot of time here on nostalgia. “We didn’t give a fuck back then/ I ain’t a kid no more/ We’ll never be those kids again,” he sings in a song called “Ivy.” And while none of the tracks instantly jumps out at you as a hit, the more you listen to the album, the more songs really make an impression. “Self Control,” for instance, which features a nearly bare guitar accompaniment, is especially strong. On repeated listens, something starts to come together, even if you’re not so sure what Ocean is getting at.
Ultimately, with “Blonde” Ocean leaves most of the competition, including Drake, The Weeknd and even Kanye West’s last album, in the dust. Most of the new rap and R&B albums – and some of them are very good – disappear from the radar pretty quickly, especially given the amount of new music that’s always coming out. But with Ocean, as with Lamar’s brilliant “To Pimp a Butterfly” last year, you get the feeling that the music is here to stay. And in an age where Lamar has set the bar so high, that’s where the real test for new black music appears to be – in the length of its shelf life.
Frank Ocean, “Blonde,” Boys Don’t Cry label.