Frank Ocean’s Two Album Splash: Endless and Blonde

Frank Ocean

Blonde and Endless

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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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The 10 Best Summer Albums

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Beach Boys Summer Fun

Editor’s Note: This list was originally published in 2012, but works for any hot day, regardless of year.

So here we are, deep into this relentlessly hot and sticky summer of 2012, and hopefully you are enjoying it as much as we are. It’s the time of the year for swimming pools and popsicles, baseball and biking, and sweating your ass off not matter what, no matter where. Thus we bring you our favorite albums to accompany such occasions. What makes a summer album you ask? In our opinion it is somewhat upbeat, but not overly so. Something that you can groove too whether you’re too hot to do so or not. Since I was a young lad, Austin was only knee high to a grasshopper, and Wes was just a Pooh-cub scrounging for honey, there have always been these certain songs, artist, and albums that have always left their impression on our young summers. So we decided to list out some of our favorites. Making a particularly strong appearance are some favorites from the nineties. We aren’t really sure why, but I suppose some nineties artist just really know how to set the tone for a particular summer mood. Please feel free to tell us what does it for you …
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Weak List Wednesday: 5 Best Live Shows of 2014

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I don’t think it was the most prolific year in music for any of us.  Wes bought a house.  Todd spent six weeks in Thailand Muay Thai fighting.  And I Rip Van Winkled myself, sleeping most the year.  Nevertheless, we all were able to catch some good live music.  Let us know what your favorite show was this year.
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Stevie Wonder Show Review

Stevie Wonder

Performs Songs in the Key of Life Live

November 14th, 2014

United Center, Chicago, IL

Stevie Wonder, Madison Square Garden, November 6th, 2014

There are few albums more ambitious than Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-album Songs in the Key of Life. It’s as ambitious and ornate as Sgt. Pepper’s and as diverse and wide-ranging as the White Album.  It’s exploration of life in the inner city and a divided, violent country and his idealist call for love to heal all divides transcends the period and is still relevant 38 years later. I saw Stevie Wonder perform this classic album and a sampling of his hits in a 3-hour set to remember.
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The Real Problem with the Grammys

2014 Grammy Award Recap

Last year I tried constructive criticism with the Grammys, hoping to fix its issues but also applauding what it
got right. I couldn’t possible take on such a task again, as I realized the problem runs so much deeper.
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Mo’ Meta Blues Review

Mo’ Meta Blues

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman

Mo' Meta Blues Book Review

One of the most admirable acts of the last 20 years has to be the Roots, a hip hop band that is really the last of its kind remaining, that sticks true to its convictions even though they now have a cushy gig on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Arguably the brains behind the operation, drummer and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, not only has piloted the group to gradual greater and greater successes, but has taken on a variety of other notable projects over the years, from producing D’Angelo’s modern touchstones like Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Pt. 1 and 2 to musical director on the Chappelle Show. Questlove’s new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, is a refreshingly creative memoir that not only gives great insight into who Questlove is but also tells numerous insider stories that are fascinating and humorous.
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Top Ten Thursday: Best Super Bowl Halftime Shows

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Super Bowl halftime shows have had a pretty wide range over the years; starting out with mostly college marching bands and currently sometimes ending up in huge controversy (like the above or M.I.A. last year).  For the past twenty years or so, though, the halftime show has settled into two categories for the most part:  aging rock star or in-the-moment pop sensations.  There just hasn’t been a lot of imagination.  I truly believe, and so do Todd and Wes deep down even though they won’t admit it, the combination of Aerosmith, N’Sync, and Nelly was pretty electric, and a legitimate combination of current and aging talents.  Alas, they didn’t make the list.  Neither did The Who (decrepit), Madonna (mummified), or the Shania Twain, No Doubt, Sting combination (puzzling).  In fact, this list is not nearly as strong as we would have expected, so I ripped to some degree on several acts.  Enjoy, and as always let us know what you think in the comments.

10. 2006 – The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones Super Bowl

After the 2004 Janet Jackson debacle (blessing?), the NFL decided to trot out a lot of very “safe” acts for some time.  Hence, a bunch of old bags of bones (stones?) took the stage in 2006 and sounded much smaller than the event demands.  As a consolation, the stage is phenomenal, and Keith Richards puppet-master continues to get paid for his superb work.
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