There's also a lot of ego in pop culture but little reflection about the ebbs and flow and elusive construction of the inner self. There's complaint without accountability. There's stereotype and misogyny, blatant or implied, and redundant doubling-down of same-old themes: Sex, cars, bitches, Benjamins, getting paid, hitting it, baby mamas. There's a lot of literal language and a lot of embarrassingly blatant metaphor. There's Drake saying he's the fucking man and he's too good for you.
Then there's Frank Ocean.
I'm hardly the only one enthralled with Frank Ocean. The critics love him. His peers revere him. His fans are so rabid they got pissed at him for taking so long between Channel Orange and Blond, or Blonde. The delay was no doubt artistic. This guy is "enigmatic and reclusive" as the NYTimes said. Ocean's new and awaited release was also a business/independence move. He bypassed and released himself from obligation to Def Jam, his label, by releasing "Endless" a day before he released "Blond" or "Blonde" which was streamed on Apple.
But I don't care about the machinations of the music industry. Neil Young pulled his catalogue on Spotify because digital streaming is sad sound quality. Jay Z and Beyonce and Rihanna started Tidal because they are bigger than a label. George Michael battled with Sony and Prince changed his name to a symbol to separate from his corporate overlords. Now Frank Ocean has taken another brick out of the corporate wall by controlling the release of Blond. Like millions of other fans, I'm just glad it's here. In the week since it's been out and I bought it, I've listened to it straight through about 10 times. Predictably I've gone from "It's not as good as Channel Orange" to getting the sense that the genius has upped the ante again. As a poet who has read many poetry books, there is something about the arc of Ocean's albums (or releases) that are as resonant as some of the most powerful poetry volumes.
Ocean creates albums the way Joni Mitchell created albums -- poetry that begs explication set aloft in music. I find Blond, even more than Channel Orange, as invitational as Kate Bush, particularly Bush's record "50 Words For Snow." The intentionality of that album by the British artist begged a listener to take it on, over and over, to understand each song and also to see how the narrative arc of the album was created, and to what end.
About Bush and "50 Words For Snow," NPR music critic Ann Powers once wrote : "Each song on Snow grows as if from magic beans from the lush ground of the singer-songwriter's keyboard parts. The music is immersive but spacious, jazz-tinged and lushly electronic – the 53-year-old Bush, a prime inspiration for tech-savvy young auteurs ranging from St. Vincent to hip-hop's Big Boi, pioneered the use of digital samplers in the 1980s and is still an avid aural manipulator. This time around, drummer Steve Gadd is her most important interlocutor – the veteran studio player's gentle but firm touch draws the frame around each of her expanding landscapes. But Bush won't be restricted. Like [Joni] Mitchell on Don Juan's Restless Daughter [sic], she takes her time and lets her characters lead."
As for Frank Ocean, his critically acclaimed Channel Orange in 2012 did not simply satisfy as a superior musical release worthy of a Grammy, it was the kind of work that led comparisons to the writer Joan Didion, for the way Ocean riffed and nailed California culture, among other topics. There was a freshness of voice and vision. There was a startling originality even when he referenced or sampled. It was a coming out album, but then it was so much more that even sexuality was merely a part of the Ocean Gestalt.
Sex and drugs are part of Ocean's work. It's not about these things but OF it. So you just go for the ride. The track Pilot Jones features sound effects of an airplane taking off and landing, with a nice flight above the clouds. So rich and aural and aerial and so stoned. In Blonde, Ocean sings that smoking weed is a cheap vacation. He takes you there, and not just with the obvious reference but with the mind-altered sonics he creates.
The 4-year wait for Ocean's follow-up to Channel Orange has set music critics up for a delightful task. In the Atlantic, Ocean's new work was noted for being "A Monument To Memory" by critic Stephen Kornhaber: "Popular music usually has a clear and agreed-upon relationship to time, allowing you to live for three and a half minutes not by the ticktock of the clock but by the tap of your toe and your awareness of the number of choruses that have passed. Ocean previously made brilliant use of these conventions on his way to next-big-thing status in pop and R&B, but he has returned after a four-year silence with a radically different way of working. Save for one glorious pop waltz, “Pink + White,” the songs on Blond(e) mostly operate by the twisty logic of how a narrative might actually unfold in the mind, rather than on the radio. It’d be art nonsense if it didn’t pack so much power in so many unexpected places."
Time. Memory. No greater or richer field of revery is there for artists. As the psychologist David Wechsler put it: "Memories are not like filed letters stored in cabinets.… Rather, they are like melodies realized by striking the keys on a piano.'' It's into this sphere that Frank Ocean allows you to go with him. Frank Ocean is melodic. And he creates his own plane. The trip doesn't have a destination. It just amplifies every time through. The lyrics and references are rooted in our time, in the millennial culture he inhabits, but they're timeless.
Rimbaud. Dylan. Auden. Ocean. Maybe that's a stretch or maybe in this age, it's an appropriate lineage. Frank Ocean delivers a lush and complicated art. You want to know him and what he's saying because it may help you know more about yourself. Or it may give you the freedom to see that the psyche's process for sorting out one's shapeless self is an out-of-time process. I'm in awe.