In the four years since Frank Ocean’s last album, he seems to have lost his taste for the concrete. Blonde, out since August, exists within the boundaries of his pre-established style, only vaguer: synthesizers wispier, melodies quieter. To say he’s gone atmospheric is to exaggerate; these remain parsable songs with discrete textures. There’s just something mild, something faint about the whole project. He’s crossed some line where everything becomes too muted, too restrained, too cautious, too attenuated, shading in the microdetails at the big picture’s expense. Four years of agonized labor went into music this slight.
Because 2012’s sublime if overestimated Channel Orange had a way of gradually unfolding over a period of time longer than the average reviewer’s deadline, I thought I’d give the new album some breathing room. Five months later, Blonde still refuses to crystallize. Four years isn’t a lifetime (not compared to gaps in the careers of Maxwell, D’Angelo, etc), but Blonde shrugs off the pressure of anticipation by providing less of the same. Released a week after Ocean publicly came out, Channel Orange explores romantic angst and California hedonism in an imagined confessional style traceable to fellow West Coast singer-songwriters like, say, Joni Mitchell, comfortable in its creamy, sinuous electropop skin. After Channel Orange won various year-end awards and critical accolades, Ocean promptly withdrew to the studio to craft the follow-up album that his impatient fans couldn’t wait for. The wait nonetheless contributed to his legend; he’s something of a queer icon as well as the mainstream’s idea of what a serious artist is like (how can the Grammys not recognize Frank Ocean, asked an outraged Kanye West earlier this year, because Ocean’s artistry is obviously a given). His long bout with perfectionism finally produced Endless, a “video album” intended as a teaser for the real thing, and a day later, Blonde, the real thing. It’s a consistent, coherent, well-crafted album, but it feels anticlimactic. It’s a retreat.
“Contrary to a lot of descriptions, it’s not some hazy, impressionistic blur: it has a wonderful clarity, directness, and simplicity,” wrote Pitchfork’s Nitsuh Abebe in 2012 about Ocean’s music. Indeed. Ocean’s musical signature, in both his pained, sincere voice and the smooth, melancholy electronics he sings over, is the quiet ache. Again like Mitchell, he’s a diffident dreamer whose heartstrings audibly twinge. Hazy he’s not, and most of the songs on Blonde circle around a single guitar figure or washy keyboard progression without many textural filters clouding the mix. Tempos are down, and often Ocean omits the drum track for slow burn’s sake. The opening sequence haunts, from the slowly diminishing chipmunk vocoder in “Nikes” to the vast expanses of space conjured by glistening guitar lines in “Ivy,”, from the descending piano chords in “Pink & White” to the noodling organ in “Solo.” Later, “Nights” scrunches and hops over a shifty synthesizer whose texture keeps vacillating between metallic and slick, and “Self Control,” over a hushed guitar riff that recalls Baby Bash’s “Suga Suga,” builds to an echoey, overdubbed chorus that quickly fades out. Those are the highlights. The rest evaporates finely into a chilly morning mist. Channel Orange expands as you listen; Blonde shrinks under scrutiny. Drifting every which way amid plain, vaporous song sketches, he often sounds tired, as if aching so sorely and immersing so wholeheartedly in such soft, edgeless music is exhausting him. Sensitivity cancels out energy.
Blonde fascinates for its disparity between the ostensible magnitude of Ocean’s ambition and the mildness of the result. Some artists, aiming to live up to critical hype, overreach, packing their albums with conceptual moves and bloated signifiers; others turn inward, fixated on understatement and the reticent gesture, so evasive they can’t be pinned down. Ocean’s album works to self-efface. Occasional references to sand, pools, and speedboats establish the setting as California-decadent, but the lyrics, too, eschew past specificity for more generalized romantic-existential plaints. There’s no glamour, no flash, no analysis, nor does he particularly care about Hollywood hedonism this time around (celebrating it, criticizing it, what have you). It’s the implied precondition for his tone, for the way, musically, he simulates ennui amid luxury. Perhaps living in such a landscape desensitizes one to pleasure; you could speculate as to whether he’s depicting this process or whether it’s actually happened to him. A forlorn romantic taking comfort in form, he’s slipped into the pursuit of craft for its own sake, and while in a pop context craft can be an end in itself, Ocean’s formula is too private and too indistinct. You could hide out for ages beneath Blonde’s light polish, in a crack between the synthesizer’s queasy throb and the click of the drum machine. The exact threat — heartbreak? hate? substance overload? loss of principle and integrity in the cold, cold world? — is unclear. Escapism must either specify a danger or prove so irresistible that you could plug in any danger and reach for the same escape hatch. A jaded, drained album whose electropop trickles along and whose vocal hooks trade tune for ache will satisfy only those whose angst mirrors Ocean’s — and perhaps those who feel the ache so deeply in their bones its mere articulation feels profound.
In retrospect Ocean’s finest album isn’t Channel Orange, an exceedingly gorgeous yet occasionally nattering piece of music, but Nostalgia, Ultra, the mixtape he dropped in 2011 that first made his name. With hissing, clicking tape noises providing segues between one song and another, with several gleeful postmodern exercises on which Ocean sings over the backing track of another artist’s song, Nostalgia, Ultra rubs its own status as a mixtape in your face, and by extension Ocean’s alienation; it achieves via framing what he can’t through direct expression, but that frees him to write a batch of wonderful songs — songs with hummable hooks and troubled lyrics, songs that do his romantic obsession justice through sweetly juicy music and tart vocals. Nostalgia, Ultra is slight and marginal, yet it feels like a triumph. Ocean isn’t an artist prone to big statements: from the beginning his music was cagey and subtle. Blonde suggests his gift for the small statement is small.