Around every two to three months, I crave fish and chips. I must have those soggy yet crisp little chippers doused in vinegar and salt, a fluffy starch-pillow for my mouth, and the haddock (saveloy if I'm feeling really grim) similarly crisp yet so greasy you can wring it out like a wet pair of Speedos. I hold out to avoid the inevitable: the trip to the Golden Carp, eating the chips in the car so fast they scorch off the top layer of the roof of your mouth and then imbibing that fish, swallowing the stray bones. I go to sleep a couple of hours later and I start to feel the rumblings of a fire in my chest. Those chippers are having a party in my oesophagus, in their mutilated half-digested state they force themselves back up on me, using their grease as lubricant and the fish as a springboard. I have to sit up in bed and each time I burp a small taste of sickly acidic bile pools at the back of my throat – those damn chippers are threatening me, they're revolting. Eventually, the bile-grease-carb-fish party dies down and settles into a satisfied guilt. A couple of months later I feel that familiar jones again.
When Frank Ocean released his new LP Blond (Blonde? -- more on the spelling later), this past weekend it was almost as if that familiar feeling, and taste, was coming back to me. Something wouldn't quite settle.
I first discovered Ocean back in 2011 with the release of his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and immediately was fascinated by his Aaliyah-like vocal stylings, intelligent lyrical content, and most astoundingly, his capacity to package said lyrical content into well written melodic pop/R&B hooks and make it all sound effortless yet intriguing. Here was someone indebted to the golden age of '90s R&B, sampling a band as 'uncool' as Coldplay whilst simultaneously reappropriating The Eagles' dad-rock classic 'Hotel California' into a cynical retelling of modern day love. When his debut LP Channel Orange came out the following year and Ocean expanded his repertoire to more than just thoughtful sampling, it topped most critics' best of the year lists for 2012. And then the drama ensued. Cue a cancelled support slot on Coldplay's world tour, Ocean's revelation of his sexuality, a parking lot fight with Chris Brown, a string of sell out headline tour dates, and then the radio silence.
Frank Ocean fans have since been waiting with baited breath for a taste of new music these last four years. Of course, it's no D'Angelo-style sixteen year odyssey for a new record, but both of these artists have illustrated to varying extents a key lesson in the release of their latest albums: sometimes creative freedom is a hinderance, not liberty.
Let's (finally) get to Blond(e) itself then. There are moments of heart-aching clarity and beauty on it, the kind of songwriting and production that instantly transports you to wherever you want it to. I love lots of this album. The luscious string swells on 'Seigfried' are a highlight for me, as are the lyrics, showcasing Ocean at his best when writing about Middle America, the Wall Mart romanticism of Raymond Carver: I can't relate to my peers/ I'd rather live outside/ I'd rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here/ Maybe I'm a fool/ Maybe I should move/ And settle, two kids and a swimming pool. It's a return to the 'American Wedding' of Nostalgia, Ultra, specific yet abstract enough for listeners to appropriate, creating that provocative escapism we yearn for. The following track 'Godspeed' makes beautiful use of James Blake's signature keyboard chromaticisms and couples with opener 'Nikes' in the creation of a cinematic soundscape, a thread that runs throughout the record.
There are, in fact, a multitude of highlights on Blond(e): the Channel Orange grooving of 'Pink + White', the rumbling low end of 'Nights' coupled with a touch of Jonny Greenwood influenced ambience at its close, and the shoegazing guitars and distortion on 'Pretty Sweet' sitting restlessly underneath its jittering percussion. The problem comes, however, when viewed as a whole. Ocean has managed to tinker with a record that ultimately sounds unfinished, a collection of sketches and fugues. It seems as if the creative freedom granted him by the success of Channel Orange has produced a record that is at times revelatory but also self-indulgent (see the tape-hiss chatter in the final minutes of 'Futura Free', the lacklustre use of Andre 3000 on 'Solo (Reprise)' and heavy-handed symbolism of 'Facebook Story').
Perhaps the answer lies in Endless, the visual album that preceded Blond(e). Released the day before, it's a sprawling mish-mash of words and sounds, all tied together by the image of Ocean building a staircase in a warehouse. We all get the symbolism of building a staircase, but I'm not sure we need to watch 45 minutes of it. It's as if Ocean is trying to do everything, all at once: a zine, a video installation, a record. The lack of clear direction is frustrating to endure.
This lack of direction is also illustrated in the awkward release of the record. Multiple release dates were touted and then delayed to retain an element of surprise and ultimately exasperation for fans. On the day of release, however, fans were disappointed to learn of Ocean's exclusive deal with Apple Music that means the album is tied to the platform for two weeks. Of course, this is a growing trend in the industry with Beyonce and Rihanna opting for similar deals with Jay Z's Tidal, but for someone so professedly uninterested in commercialism (see the free release of Nostalgia, Ultra), the stench of Tim Cook and his corporate interest leaves a bitter taste.
Other artists such as James Blake and Radiohead have recently illustrated the potential power of the 'guerilla release' album, presenting a complete work with minimal fanfare, but Ocean's attempt seems to have stalled with track-listings differing between digital and physical versions and no one being quite sure whether the record is Blond or Blonde.
The best of music is that infinite density of abstract sounds and words condensed into three and a half minutes (or more) of narrative emotion. That's where the talent lies, in curating often disparate ideas into a finished product, knowing when to finish and leaving it finished. Ocean is obviously a restlessly creative mind, the kind of mind that produces 'the best of music' but also one that, by its nature, will keep challenging itself, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Maybe my mind is too simple to grasp the complexity of this record, maybe I'm a fool, and it most certainly is a record that you need to live with until it carves out its own space, until it settles.
[This piece was originally published on Medium on 23/08/16]