72 hours after Frank Ocean’s long awaited Blond(e) dropped, it became the 2nd highest rated album on metacritic* in 2016 behind Beyonce’s Lemonade album, which just so happened to be another “surprise” album. Although I wouldn’t mind this so much if this happened to be where these albums stood at the end of the calendar year, the fact that so many reviews of Ocean’s album flooded in with extraordinarily high ratings in such a short amount of time is troublesome.
I feel like I’ve talked about this in great depth before. You might remember it. It was a piece on Kendrick Lamar and microwave journalism. However, that was in defense of an artist and a semi-response to a column that reconsidered the album’s high ratings. This one is a little more proactive considering that Frank Ocean’s second studio album is barely a week old and the term “classic” is being handed out like Olympic gold medals to Simone Biles and Usain Bolt.
You know what?
I’ve got an analogy that might better explain my position on these nuked up ratings for surprise albums where getting caught up in the hype is part of the problem.
Fellas, you might be able to relate to this. And excuse the sexual innuendo.
(Sorry ladies, I can’t come up with an analogy to match because, well, I’m a guy)
You’ve been waiting to see this gorgeous girl and fascinated with what she’ll be like in bed. When you finally get her in bed, you’re aroused more by the prospect of conquering this long awaited conquest than anything else. Your over-excitement leads to prematurely blasting off. She thinks she’s amazing in bed because it ended so fast and – once your head clears – you know it was more about the excitement than anything else that caused this prematurely climax. However, you can’t take back what came out.
In terms of reviewing music, it’s a very similar sensation when you are so excited to hear an album that you’ve waited an excruciatingly long time to hear. You already have a mental erection based on expectations and as long as it is better than average, you subconsciously bump the rating up a notch or two. “Average” sex becomes “the best ever” when you consider the circumstances surrounding it. But how can you be so sure given that you had such a small sample? You didn’t get the best of her nor did you find out if she had any bedroom tricks that you never experienced before.
What you really should do before you go bragging to your boys is sleep with her a few more times and find out if you really blew the experience out of proportion based on expectations. Unfortunately, in the era of trying to garner clicks as quickly as possible, nobody has time to wine and dine the album on a few more dates before settling on a rating.
That’s what is happening with Frank Ocean’s Blond and numerous other albums that were highly anticipated before their release. A decent album becomes very good and very good becomes classic. In this day and age, where it is rare for a journalist to have an album long enough to offer a complete analysis before the masses take hold of it and formulate their opinions on social media, the knee jerk reaction is the only one available. Unfortunately, it doesn’t serve the artist or his craft any form of justice. What he or she poured their heart and soul into for months (or, in Ocean’s case, years) is nuked and served to the world in a matter of days. You can’t take it back regardless of how you feel about it months later.
No matter how fancy that review is written, it’s still McDonalds because the consumers couldn’t wait to get a taste. As a writer, you could have probably prepared a fine piece of Kobe beef, but who has time to put together a fine meal when all everyone wants is McDonalds? It’s also the reason why McDonalds is a massive franchise that does more to systematically destroy your health than a well-prepared meal. But I digress…
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that a lot of these reviews are based on more than a couple of listens. And to decipher Frank Ocean’s coded language and peel the layers back in so few listens is an insult.
What’s the rush?
In the current landscape where reviews do little to nothing to sell an album (because, you know, everything is streamed or downloaded illegally), what’s the point in rushing out a review? Oh, for traffic. Well, hooray for you and your slapdash classic ratings that you’ll regret a few months from now and write a column on how we all wrongfully rushed to an early judgment. Why not take your time with an artist’s work if you are considering that it may be a classic? This doesn’t go for all albums because some projects are average or trash and it doesn’t take too many listens to figure that out. But, even then, give it some burn. Like my analogy above, if you’re considering putting a classic ring on the album’s finger, you should test-drive the goods multiple times before getting on your knees and proposing to it. Most of the time, the first sexual experience is the worst and things get better (or worse) after trying again. All that to say that you really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about when you speak in extraordinary hyperbole on something you only briefly experienced. And all your colorful review language doesn’t change it.
And if this offends you, sorry (not sorry). There are some excellent journalists out there who were forced to meet a deadline and spun the album endlessly in order to churn out a review. But then there are others who heard it, loved it, and crowned it because they don’t want to miss the wave of traffic heading their way. Either way, we’re all guilty of microwave culture. The first review is the one that is read most and if yours comes a week later, that’s too bad because the consumers are full of junk food and don’t have room for your well thought out meal that is full of nutrients.
Is Frank Ocean’s album a classic? It’s too soon to tell. To be completely honest, it didn’t capture me like channel ORANGE did after my first few listens. It was minimalistic in its approach and lacked the eclectic, yet daring and straightforward storytelling that grabbed me with Ocean’s full-length debut. It was a momentous album that didn’t have a great deal of standout moments. However, as I spent more time with the album I realized that Ocean was very careful in layering his narrative and projecting the duality of his message. There’s subtle brilliance hidden between the lines and proof that Ocean’s genius didn’t implode under the burning spotlight of his celebrity.
There’s no doubt that Blond is an important album that is different than anything out today but that doesn’t automatically classify it as a classic piece of work.
Blond is Ocean segmented away from the world of celebrity with only his thoughts and music to accompany him. He’s not influenced by the world around him, as he appears to be trying to navigate his surroundings without all of the noise outside of his front door. Blond is insulated and allows Ocean to view the world on his terms.
Times have changed drastically since channel ORANGE dropped in 2012. Obama is on his way out, black lives only matter until another body is stacked upon the mountain of corpses of melanin struck by an officer’s bullet, Prince and Muhammad Ali are leading the revolution in the afterlife and so much more. But Ocean isn’t moved like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé were to focus on making music about the cultural climate. He’s not ignoring it; he’s just sequestered in his own emotions. As a 28-year-old whose vulnerability and excellent storytelling ability has thrust him into the spotlight, Ocean is still caught up in his own head.
But there’s still time to address the bullshit outside of his door. “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me,” resonates because “Nikes” tackles materialism and obsession. Instead of being self righteous, Ocean is conflicted. It’s like a psychedelic dream that takes place after “Super Rich Kids.” The voices and production are symbolic of the voices that we hear in our head when deciding between wants and needs and Ocean captures that in a bottle and unleashes it to the world.
Four years out of the spotlight has Ocean turning inward throughout the album. He’s not lamenting about his celebrity friends or how his life has changed since turning the industry upside down. Instead, he’s still trying to tell his story his way. At times his attempts at abstract are minimalized by his own vocal limitations. He’s not a singer that will blow you away with his range and his voice can become a squeaky instrument that needs refinement.
Although he’s not the greatest singer, he knows how to use his voice in moderation so it doesn’t get in the way of his message. However, the abstract can become exhausting and the biggest criticism of Blond is also its greatest strength. The layer peeling can become a grind and leads the listener to reading between the lines only to find a handful of sand. There are also times where songs don’t feel complete, whether intended or not. Songs such as “Solo” and “Skyline To” are empty calories despite showing promise early. Both are either missing something or have congested messaging.
Neither are bad songs, but they linger on an already weighty album. And that’s a common theme on the album. You either feel like your missing something or too busy digging for treasure that it’s hard to accept the song for what it is. Perceived brilliance can come by accident when the consumer gives the artist too much credit. All of this can get convoluted and the numerous reddit forums dedicated to deciphering Blond and it’s numerous meanings can be defined as Sherlock Holmes sleuthing or as simple as Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego.
But when Ocean is on and the sparse parts become whole, he’s magnificent.
“Nights” is absolutely stellar in its bipolar mood swing from the first entry to the second. Part one finds Frank delivering his narrative in a particular mood that’s a little more boastful and aggressive. But like most of us, our aggressiveness can be a cover up for somber emotions. These emotions are what Ocean toggles brilliantly for the second half of the song.
There’s something special about how Frank Ocean delivers his vocals. On “Nights” he discusses the line “every day shit” with a casual yet somewhat annoyed cadence. It’s right in tune with how he handles the first half of his story about a relationship. However, when the album splits into the second half (which is literally the 2nd half of the album), Ocean’s vocals take an almost remorseful tone, as it is the second version of his narrative. The production wistfully glides behind Ocean as he regretfully recounts how he used a past relationship for housing and sex. It’s almost as if he was taking out his angst with the world on his lover. It’s truly fascinating to listen to in its entirety.
What also makes Frank Ocean special is the fact that his bisexuality isn’t front and center. He doesn’t hide it nor does he force it down our throats. It’s just, kind of, there. This is how it should exist in a hyper masculine culture that is still breaking itself down to empathetic molecules. “Good Guy” is just a quick story about Ocean meeting a guy but realizing that he’s little more than a nightcap than anything of substance.
“Close To You,” which is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s cover performed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David is a tantalizing dish where the vocal effects project beauty in its brief stay. “Pink + White” is perhaps one of the most whole songs on the album where Pharrell’s sparse keys hover along the harmonious production as Ocean recounts a past love and an experience with cocaine. It’s on par with this generation’s foray into experimenting and stretching boundaries but Ocean’s vocals keep the narrative clear and distinct.
The completely random second collaboration between Ocean and Andre 3000 on “Solo (Reprise)” is Three Stacks in all of his glory as he picks up on the themes of “Solo” but with an absolutely stellar outing that has all of us questioning how he’s not one of the greatest rappers of all-time. We’re also questioning if a few lines are about Drake, but that’s neither here nor there.
Blond is unique piece of art by Frank Ocean. Digesting it all in one sitting can be a laborious task. But trying to decide whether it is a classic in such a short amount of time does a disservice to its staying power. Will we revisit this map of emotions over minimalistic production in a few months or did we become a victim of hype? Only time will tell but I have a feeling that some of those high ratings will be knocked down a notch or two in a few months when award season comes along and we’ll be forced to revisit what we once called the best sex of all time.
* Blond now sits at No. 3 behind Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool.