Dean Van Nguyen grew up rational and needs a sabbatical.
Frank Ocean is 28-years-old. That’s young, but not so young that his whole his life remains in front of him. It’s the age when the past begins to feel long. When you say goodbye to a significant chunk of your adulthood, and deal with the fact that you’re never going to get it back.
Do you think Christopher grew up on comic books? He doesn’t wear masks or shuffle through secret identities, but maybe the New Orleans native turned Angeleno modeled himself on the heroes of Marvel and DC’s paneled pages. He’s The Riddler, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Or maybe he’s Bruce Wayne, endlessly brooding in the lab. Ocean sometimes likes to throw a bunch of reverb on his vocals. It’s like you’re sitting on a church bench and he’s singing above your head, grasping the back of a stone gargoyle.
That sense of mystery shrouded the build-up of Ocean’s third full-length. Unofficial deadlines came and went. In a universe of social media access and the wraith of TMZ creeping through the sewers, Frank had us questioning the very existence of the record, solidifying his credentials as a new-age Prince of pop star mysticism. This kind of thing is not immaterial. Like symbolism punctuated Batman’s heroism, the mystique—probably unintentional—makes Frank’s open book songwriting reverb even more loudly.
Last weekend, we finally had the answers. Any theories that Ocean had spent the last few years drifting from music were dispelled. Two full-length projects dropped a couple of days apart – one visual album in Endless and one regular album in Blond – a video for “Nikes”, plus a zine. It added up to one of the most hyped artpop (popart?) projects of all time.
I don’t know about the comics, but I’m sure Frank came up on Elliott Smith. On the tender “Seigfried”, from Blond, he pays homage to the singer with lyrics from “Fond Farewell”, a song where Smith tries to draw a line under a debilitating drug addition. Ocean instead engages with growing pains. He reveals a disconnection from his peers while contemplating the potential idyllic suburban existence of “two kids and a swimming pool”. He talks about plunging deep into his subconscious, finding Nirvana and reemerging like a Phoenix from the ashes. It sounds like the on-set of early middle age blues. The longing to return to the still-recent past that feels half the world away.
“Fond Farewell” was released in 2004, a year after Smith died at his Echo Park home by his own hand. Dude meant a lot. His songs were easily applicable to my life, but angled enough that it felt his writing was just for me. It was just after my 18th birthday when he died, but the music resonated through the first skirmishes of my adulthood, underpinning all the dance, music, sex and romance that comes with being a young grown up.
Two years older than Frank, I’m a little further ahead in the journey. I’ve spent the time grappling with getting older—the idea that everything isn’t in front of me anymore and I have to discard parts of my life like cheap souvenirs from trips aboard. I don’t go to the same clubs anymore, or see most of the swell of people I’d get trashed with a few times a week. Common narratives say you replace the rush with career, marriage, creating a home – all of that supposed good stuff. But it’s not so easy.
On “Seigfied”, like much of Blond, Frank sounds like a young man knowing the exit music is playing to a huge part of his life. A lot of Channel Orange was about an LA goofball wasting afternoons laying in the sun, trying to screw rich kids and pondering the kind of questions that keep art college kids up at night. Frank didn’t need direction or answers. On Blond, he sounds sad it’s all coming to an end. He misses every lover. The record plays like a bookmark intended to keep the past within reach. From first listen, I couldn’t help but filter it through my own youth.
“Nikes” sounds how being young used to feel. It’s a hazy post-party stumble, when you’re the only person conscious in a living room full of empty bottles, stale blunts and laid out bodies. The accompanying video looks like the 10 best parties you’ve ever been to, remembered in a fever dream. Frank’s vocal sounds like it’s been pulled through seven different kinds of audio software and then forced into a meat grinder. That’s until the sun shines bursts through the front window, his voice becomes angelic and he finds his moment of clarity. “Living so the last night feels like a past life,” he sings, encapsulating the hazy memories. RIP Yams, Pimp C and Trayvon Martin.
Your early twenties is a weird period of time when you’ve grown into an adult’s body but modern day extended parenting means your mind hasn’t quite caught up. In college, you’re told to take advantage of your summers. Visit other countries, do some volunteer work, or whatever – you’ve a handful of years to make enough memories to sustain you for a lifetime. That’s the framing. But those post-party freakouts can resonate just as much as your fucking summer in Prague.
These are the moments when I truly felt like I existed. What Blond does is takes those brief moments and pulls them into whole songs. It’s like seeing your blurry old disposable camera photographs blown up onto a cinema screen.
Let’s go back a touch. The weekend began with the relentlessly ambient Endless, officially only available to listen to as the accompanying soundtrack to the most hypnotic wood shop movie you’ll ever see. Assuming this was the album, I wondered if Ocean had reached a tipping point.
It was as though one of the best songwriters of his generation had exhausted his pen. Maybe the narratives weren’t biting like before, so he made an album of squiggly sketches. It was never going to be Nostalgia, Ultra part 2, so nobody could say a damn thing if it didn’t stack up.
Where were the songs? There’s Frank’s cover of The Isley Brothers via Aaliyah’s “At Your Best (You Are Love)”—one of his best ever vocals—and the hilariously batshit closer “Device Control”, a muscular synth jam that plays like an ‘80s hallucinatory vision of society in 2016 (“Streaming life in this device is possible/ It’s in your palm, dreams of pleasure in your hand,” goes German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans). Other than that, only a handful of Endless’s experiments tug at your heels, begging to be reimagined as a more fully-functioning tracks. It’s all about the A E S T H E T I C. There are lengthy stretches when it just isn’t enjoyable, as music must be before it can be anything else.
Blond, though, doubles down on Ocean’s raw writing style. He gambles everything on his pen and voice and, for the most part, comes out breaking even. The songs are stripped away to the bare minimum. Accompaniment often comes as lone keys or a gently-strummed acoustic guitar. Smith’s alt-folk influence can be felt in the bare instrumentation. On “Solo”, Frank channels Stevie Wonder at his most sensitive, recalling a ships in the night romance over some church organ keys and not much else.
Nothing presses down as vividly as the Coachella romance stories of “Novocain” or drug warning “Crack Rock”. Ocean’s writing instead stays far more oblique. He directly engages with the passage of time on “Ivy”, brooding on a whirlwind old flame: “I ain’t a kid no more/ We’ll never be those kids again.” A direct touching point comes through as Ocean recalls how he used to swing by Syd tha Kyd’s house in a BMW X6. If there’s a group that’ll date 2011 for future cultural historians, it’s Odd Future.
Sentimentality is one of the building blocks of Frank’s body of work. He opened Nostalgia, Ultra with the sound of a PlayStation firing into life. But Blond’s recollections retain a dream-like quality. They sound like memories of memories, muddied by the passage of time and the framing of expectation. This is truth swirled around in a Styrofoam cup.
On the gorgeous “Skyline To”, he concedes “summer ain’t as long as it used to be” – the common perception that time seems to pass by more quickly the older you get – and that memories blur as “we get older”. Even on “Self Control”, a song that finds Frank in full freak mode, he lays on the reverie motif: “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.”
There are moments when the biography becomes more cutting. On “Nights”, Frank recalls post-Katrina chaos. “After ‘trina hit I had to transfer campus/ Your apartment out in Houston’s where I waited.” For once, the memories aren’t coloured by a foggy filter. With Blond, Frank lays his palm prints on greatness, but the record has a couple of setbacks.
Its lack of Hollywood moments means Blond will test the patience of listeners, and such is the cultural fixation on Ocean, there are people who will twist themselves into a pretzel trying to like this thing. One or two muscular productions—akin to Channel Orange’s club glamour “Pyramids” or the thumping “Crack Rock”, for example—amid the quaking production would have kept things moving. Franks feet get stuck in the muddy production of “Close To You”, while Andre 3000 is wasted over Mike Dean’s loose piano chords on “Solo (Reprise)”.
But Blond is not about perfection. It’s about that moment when the sun’s coming up, the smoke is hanging around the room, and you feel the warmth of the person next to you pressing onto your torso.
Becoming an adult is a drag. Sometimes I let it happen; sometimes I try to fight back, aware that it’s a battle you can’t hope to win. All you can do is file away the memories, like a clutch of polaroids in your desk drawer. Blond strikes a nerve with me on every listen. These are songs for a period of time that I’m sad to see slip away.