Frank Ocean’s Two Album Splash: Endless and Blonde

Frank Ocean

Blonde and Endless

frank-ocean-endless-blond-covers-split

New Orleans-born and L.A.-raised Frank Ocean has been one of the most consistently interesting and mysterious pop stars of the 2010’s. After helping shape the sound of boundary-pushing and controversial L.A. rap collective Odd Future, Ocean released his first mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra in 2011. Frank Ocean was then highly featured and highly involved in the production of the blockbuster rap collaboration of Jay-Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne, before finally splashing with his debut album, Channel Orange. The album showcased Ocean as one of the brightest young songwriters around, echoing Prince and Stevie Wonder at their very best, and setting the groundwork for a legendary career as a singer and songwriter.

To add even more intrigue, Ocean came out in a letter on his website which corresponded almost directly with Channel Orange’s album release. Then Ocean pretty much disappeared from the spotlight for four years, before suddenly teasing a new album titled Boys Don’t Cry to release August 12th. The day came and went, and then a week later, Ocean dropped two albums on Apple Music, a visual album called Endless and Blonde, the studio follow-up to Channel Orange. He also ended up releasing a Boys Don’t Cry zine that he released for sale at various music stores around the country which includes an entirely different version of Blonde.  I guess the extra week was worth the wait. So after four years, was it really worth all the wait and hype? Yes and no.

Some fans were so disappointed and frankly bored by they signed a petition to boycott the guy
Some fans were so disappointed with Frank for not releasing his album on 8/12 that they signed a boycott. Some fans need to get a life.

I’ll start with no. The answer would be no mostly from the standpoint that neither Blonde nor Endless is the pop smash album that everyone was salivating for. In a world that demands social buzz and meme-ability, Frank Ocean provided a mood album set to the building of a staircase in black and white (not exactly sharable) and a fairly low-key, vulnerable release in Blonde lacking any big hits or beats (not exactly a Drake or Taylor Swift record). Blonde is also filled with a handful of skits (which people almost never like) and also a star-studded cast (Beyoncé, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell) though you can barely identify their imprint beyond Andre 3000 of Outkast’s starburst of a rap on “Solo (Reprise).”

But really the answer now and over the long haul will be yes. Endless and Blonde are most certainly  slow burns, but full of novel musical ideas, their own undeniable sound, and a vulnerability that so few artists can reach.

Endless largely feels more like a table-setter, which is how it was used on the two albums release weekend coming out the night before Blonde. It’s melodies don’t burn as bright, and without any easy track list to grab, it stands as more of a mood statement and conversation piece than anything. There are still notable moments. “U-N-I-T-Y” has Frank flashing his rap skills for really the first and only time on both Blonde and Endless. At the album’s close, Frank splits into Pet Shop Boys mode on “Higgs”, a chic, bass-heavy form of new wave which really breaks the album up for its most hypnotic stretch. It’s a very varied album but feels very seamless and of one piece even if a little less memorable than Blonde.

Blonde feels like the proper follow-up to Channel Orange and where Ocean focused his time and energy: the production is crisp and exact, everything feels as it should be, where Endless feels more like a mix tape of sorts. Lead single “Nike” definitely sets the tone of the beautifully spare sound to expect on Blonde: processed but expressive vocals, bright and airy arrangements, and mood-led songs lacking the major hooks of Nostalgia Ultra and Channel Orange. You won’t find yourself singing choruses but rather getting little moments and lines stuck in your head: it’s certainly catchy if unconventionally so.

While other black artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are making bold statements about the unjust world we find ourselves in, Frank Ocean isn’t focused on racial injustice beyond the occasional empathetic passing line on Blonde (“R.I.P. Trayvon, that n**ga look just like me”). That doesn’t make Ocean’s album any less ambitious: Ocean feels like the millennial descendant of Stevie Wonder to me. He’s making music that fits well in this world and this time, but it’s soft-hearted, musically sophisticated, and ultimately exploring a brighter future. If Channel Orange was his Songs In the Key of Life, Blonde is his Innervisions but without the funk and the hits. The slightly strange-sounding ballads like “Ivy”, “Nights”, and “White Ferrari” really feel like something Stevie could have released if he was born 40 years later.

Frank also brings the church into his music like Stevie especially on “Skyline To” and “Godspeed”. He sings with an open-voice that is pretty rare to find outside gospel and truly draws you in. “Godspeed” opens with a piano line that sounds like it could be worship anthem “Revelation Song” before splitting into the open-armed love song it is. All the weird production tricks serve as an interesting counter to the nakedness of Ocean’s voice: he remains vulnerable and open to love even as the noise attempts to break him.

I’ve said this before, but the most interesting work being done these last few years is in R&B. Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, Bon Iver, FKA Twigs, Thundercat and even Kendrick to some extent (though he’s pushing hip hop and beyond) are making timeless and timely artistic statements both musically and lyrically. Frank Ocean isn’t looking to make the big attention-grabbing statement, but is special for just being himself.

Endless:

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Blonde:

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Tune-Yards Song Review: “Wait For A Minute”

Tune-Yards

“Wait For A Minute”

wait for a minute

I think we are all pretty excited for Merrill Garbus to drop another dose of truth after her 2011 breakout whokill.  It’s less than a month until her third proper album, Nikki Nack is to be released, so of course, it is time for several songs to be dropped to whet our collective whistles.  The latest such song is “Wait For a Minute”, produced by Malay, a major contributor on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. 
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Earl Sweatshirt Review: Doris

Earl Sweatshirt

Doris

doris

For some reason I believe a lot of people were expecting a masterpiece from Earl Sweatshirt.  A lot of hype has surrounded Earl’s return to the United States and getting back on the grid.  The hype wasn’t without merit, highlighted by his turn on Frank Ocean’s superb “Super Rich Kids”.  But I think everyone kind of forgets that a.) he is only 19 years of age, b.) his mixtape Earl was almost entirely produced by production wizard Tyler, the Creator, and c.) most of his other credits were at the hand of very experienced producers and more accomplished artists.  So no, Doris is not a masterpiece.  But give Earl Sweatshirt a couple more albums and I think he may have that potential.
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Top Ten Thursday: Hook Singers That Are Off The Hook

hook, singing, captain

In full disclosure, this list is a bit of a joke. Not that we don’t take hook-singing artists seriously around here, because we certainly all three love hookers. However, there doesn’t seem to be very many of them, especially ones worth noting. At least specific artists that have made themselves known as hook singers that is. Most of these artists have even since become much larger solo artists to boot. Sure there are instances in which an artist sings one hook on a song and maybe a verse, but we feel that doesn’t officially qualify them as an actual hook singer. We decided that in order to qualify for this list, the artist in question must have been featured on multiple songs by multiple artists as a hook singer. So here you have it, hook singers that are simply put, off the hook. Also, I apologize in advance for all the cheesy puns in this one.

10. Alicia Keys
alicia keys, hot
From Drake to 50 Cent to Jay-Z, Alicia is highly sought after by the money-making types to have her hook for them. Maybe this has to do with her mass appeal to anyone with a pair of ears and/or eyes. An incredibly powerful voice is just what the producer ordered for hooks like her booming performance in “Empire State of Mind”. Speaking of which …
Key Hook Track:

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2013 Grammy Recap: Some (Constructive) Criticism

2013 Grammy Award Recap

Another February, another silly Grammy award show. Yes, in the past, we have made a pretty stated point to rip on the most irrelevant of the major award shows, whether it be our Ten Worst Grammy Offenses list, our Ten Worst Grammy Song Winners, or even my Grammy recap last year. But we do try to make a point on this blog to stay away from ragging on everything (though I’m sure we have slipped up a time here and there), so for this year’s Grammy recap, I will try to only give “constructive criticism”. Consider this my letter to the Grammy committee telling them how to make the show better. More of this, less of that. That sort of thing. So without further ado, my (constructive) criticism of the 2012 Grammy’s.
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LxListening: The Win from the Willow

Willow Smith, Radiohead, samples, sampling

Last week brought about one of the more peculiar, but interesting pairings I have heard in terms of artist sampling. 12 year old Willow Smith (famous for her 2010 single “Whip My Hair” and also for being the daughter of the GREATEST actor alive, Will Smith) dropped her new single which samples Radiohead’s bleak but beautiful tune “Codex”, from their King of Limbs album. That’s right; Willow shocked everyone, from her tween fans to Radiohead geeks far and wide, with her song, “Sugar and Spice”. The kicker is, it is actually not a bad song! Musically, it is just “Codex” in its entirety. Lyrically, it’s a surprisingly long and very emotional song written by a 12 year old. Willow went from having one of the biggest pop singles in the world, drawing in a fan base of millions of tweens by being bouncy, loud, and hilarious, to dropping a melancholic introspective of an emotionally wrecked teenager set to the music of a band unknown to most kids her age. This is not only an incredibly ballsy move, but at its core value, a brilliant song for a young girl to put together.

Despite what the trolls of YouTube may say, this is not a “travesty” or a “misuse of Radiohead”; rather a young girl who was inspired by a great band and released a raw and poignant song about her struggles. You may not agree with this statement, but if more people in the music industry took chances like Willow has, the industry might be worth a bit more of a damn these days. But I digress; I was inspired to listen to many other Radiohead samples this week, in search of what makes these samples more socially acceptable than Willow’s. The answer? Nothing, really. It’s merely the fact that she is only 12, which apparently makes her inexperienced and unqualified to turn an existing song into her own original piece of art, which everyone else is doing these days. I could talk about this forever, but I will just list what I have been listening to lately … a bunch of songs that sample Radiohead, including Willow’s.

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This NOT That: Defeating Relentless Radio-play

Hear This NOT That

The car that I have recently been driving these days unfortunately does not have a good way to play an iPod. Thus, I have gotten back in the routine of listening to the radio a bit more regularly. And I use the word routine very intentionally. Radio stations are nothing if not routine. They have simply just become a cesspool of the same stinking few songs with their insignificantly tiny and terrible playlists. It is hard to find any sort of real variety or anything of real substance on the air at all. Although this does come in handy when I am in my Ke$ha, T-Swift, Katy Perry moods (which let’s face it, I’m always in the mood for these ladies), the rest of my times on the radio seem to be confusing and frustrating. Even classic rock stations have such small playlists, that it makes them unbearable to listen too regularly. So, in an effort to rid us of these stale, repetitive tunes, I will now direct my frustrations into another segment of “This NOT That”.

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