So we don’t know each other.
But, chances are, the last week or so, we’ve had a shared experience. Well, one aside from the ‘ride the subway/drink a Daiquiri/vow to quit Facebook’ experience that we’re always sharing. Alone together.
A specific one. That we’ve been waiting on for years. That nearly broke the bloody internet. That is as difficult to digest, to parse, as it is to ignore.
I’m talking, obvi, about the week of Frank Ocean.
It still feels a little too much like a fever dream. Hazy, free-floating, just a touch indecipherable. Like it might suddenly vanish. Be snatched back. Go home to the ether.
First came Endless, a 39 minute ‘visual album’ that, aesthetically, looks a bit like a slow-motion trailer for a Tom Sachs exhibition at the Noguchi Museum. Not quite an album, it’s more of a tone poem. Snippets, threads waiting to be pulled (or unravelled), that feel more like an aural glimpse into a supremely hopeful yet slightly dystopic mind than a cohesive record.
On first listen, it reminded me strongly of How To Dress Well’s Just Once EP (that Suicide Dream post-opera suite). And of Lawrence Weiner’s famous 1970 letter-as-art piece in Arts Magazine. To wit:
1. The artist may construct the piece
2. The piece may be fabricated
3. The piece need not be built.
The artist did, indeed, construct the piece. In this case, a ‘theo-consumerist as identity’ soundscape-cum-galaxy of pure feels. But he didn’t really ‘build’ it. It arrives unwhole. More of a vocoded thought form projection ensconced in headphones. Tulpa game strong.
Oh, and, maybe just a bit of a(another) fuck you to Island/Def Jam, since it also technically completed his contract, allowing the next record to be self-released. If you’re watching this it’s too late.
That next record only took another 48 hours. And is everything we were hoping for. Pure Frank. Alternately perspicacious and oleaginous. A vision of pure love and debilitating second guesses, where “I thought that I was dreaming/When you said you loved me” turns almost immediately into “I could hate you now/It’s quite alright to hate me now/Cause we both know that deep down/The feeling still deep down is good.”
Even the title perfectly sums Ocean up. Alternatively known as Blonde and Blond (a slightly anachronistic masculine form of the word), the record floats freely in two realities simultaneously, embodying the voice of a gender-agnostic generation, who finds this bathroom identity conversation sort of amusing because ‘What the fuck is it to you. Go do you. Live your life and let everyone else live theirs’.
Frank Ocean is one of those artists. The ones that engender ferocious loyalty and high stannism in the ‘enlightened’, and hype-whiplash reactive high confusion and frustration in the rest (‘how the fuck is this dude visionary other than the fact that he can see’ – internet).
I’ve gotta cop to being of the former camp. After a Corpse Reviver (or five) the other eve I seem to have sent this message in the midst of a heated textual conversation about Frank: “This is Bowie first Ziggy, Prince ’99. Inner city alt kids will pull up and come out. Art kids will distance from trust funds. I know it sounds ridiculous. But this record is a revolution in 4/4.”
Put aside the fact that there’s very little 4/4 (and that my enthusiasm level suggests that Absinthe clearly does inspire flights of fancy) and I’ll stand by the rest. This record is part of an incredibly gratifying musical revolution where emo art kids (of prodigious talent, it must be said) are occupying a place in the mainstream that would traditionally have been sealed off to them. Channel Orange, To Pimp A Butterfly, anything FKA Twigs has ever sung. Heartbreaking works of staggering genius that, like Eggers, are so latently sous-groupe that it’s a near miracle to see them occupying the ‘pages’ of Time magazine.
Interestingly, from a strictly musical perspective, this record is also part of a growing trend that sees music heading in the same direction as modern art, albeit 50 years later. Pop is giving way to hyper-minimalism. ‘Bourgeois’ trappings are cast aside, in the interest of conceptual reductivism. Abstract Expressionism begat the ‘flat’ pop of Johns and Lichenstein, which begat the linear geometries of Sol Lewitt. Think of Ye’s The Life of Pablo, a living work of surprisingly sparse orchestration, from the biggest sounding producer of his generation. Some of the tracks on this record have almost no instrumentation at all. About 70% of it eschews drum beats completely.
Blond(e) lives in a fugue. Emotions are dislocational. Sexuality isn’t a designation, it’s a weapon (though we’re never quite sure who the victim is). Some of the world’s great artists were involved in its birth, but in ways so abstract it’s almost hilarious. Ocean doubles down on ‘And the world laughs with you’, when FlyLo famously gave Thom Yorke a 40 second feature, that picked up and ended mid-verse, à la James Joyce, with none of the pomp and circumstance the mythopoetic English singer would presumably engender. Tom Sachs was involved, but maybe only in showing Ocean some construction videos detailing how to work with plywood. Beyoncé’s there for 10 seconds of background vocals. Kendrick has about five words of ad-libs over the duration of a track, but no verse. Rostam Batmanglij plays guitar, errr, somewhere, and Bowie (!!) apparently did something or other before heartbreakingly leaving us for Stratford-upon-Heaven. The only true feature is Andre 3000, which sees 3 Stacks in full Gatsby-era Fitzgerald beast mode, crystallizing 4 minutes of bars into 64 seconds, on the reprise of Solo. So low.
It’s far too early to fully dissect this record. Reviewers are falling all over themselves, but not really saying anything. ’Twas ever thus.
Time. We need time. Not to bask in the beauty, but to comprehend it. As the man says, “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/Inhale, in hell there’s heaven.”
Take a deep breath, and leap.