Frank Ocean-Blonde: Album Review

We could talk all day about the build-up to Blonde.  In my review of Endless, I mentioned the monumental task that Ocean had in front of him after releasing his near-instant classic Channel Orange.  Even though I was quite impressed by the haphazard brilliance of Frank’s precursor album, the idea of what the real deal would finally sound like still carried a certain tension.  Would he finally be able to stand in front of the world and deliver his next chapter or would he fall into the category of artists doomed to be reduced to their first album for the rest of time.  Let’s just say that the first beat of the album breathes an immediate sigh of relief.  “Nikes” is a perfect Frank Ocean song.  The slightly nostalgic beat emerges with wholehearted optimism.  Then Ocean returns gloriously, his voice climbing up to high note.  The choice for the electronic vocal effect is perfect, hiding his new-found confidence for the first couple minutes of the song leading into the moment when Frank finally pulls off his mask fully re-entering the world as his unadulterated self.  Perhaps the album has some relatively lacking hooks, perhaps it over-emphasizes melancholy moodiness, but the return of Frank Ocean is certainly a spectacular feat.

“Ivy” follows with a much different sound.  Here, Ocean dabbles in power pop; a powerful rock melody soars over chugging guitars as nostalgic lyrics spill straightforward angst about young love: “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me.”  Guitar becomes a bit of a re-occurring theme on the record, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood adding an instrumental flare into the Frank Ocean lexicon.  “Pink+White” continues the momentum with a floating piano melody complementing another glorious baritone melody.  The song ends in a big way.  Sweeping vocals enter the space, replacing the bubbly playfulness of the beginning of the song with a much more impactful final blow. On “Solo,” Ocean seemingly draws from the classic country playbook; his intervallic vocal melody is accompanied solely by wobbling organ with optimism bleeding from every corner.  The chorus here shows a lot of maturity in Frank.  Although he has never been afraid to carry a melody alone, the belted high notes in this song showcase him at his most ambitious to date.

After pondering general coming of age, summer ideas on “Skyline, To,” Ocean creates his next massive moment on “Self Control.”  A song about the end of a summer relationship, “Self Control” begins simply, laid back beach vibes provided by the playful guitar part.  As the song progresses, the tone becomes a bit more somber leading into the ending.  A longing guitar solo looms before Ocean comes to the terms with the end of the relationship in question: “I, I, I, know you gotta leave take down some summertime.”  A chorus of Franks belt these words the wall of sound amassing an astounding emotional impact.  The second half of the record features a few more bits and pieces of ideas with more long form brilliance coming together on “White Ferrari” and “Seigfried,” before ending in ambiance with “Futura Free.”

Blonde wholly commits itself to Frank himself. Even when features come into question, Frank’s voice and personality dominate.  This is most obvious for the Kendrick Lamar feature on “Skyline, To” where Lamar is simply used to re-iterate some of the lines from the vocal melody, but in other locations features enter the space without distracting from Ocean’s work.  On “Self Control” Yung Lean and Austin Feinstein add phrases into each chorus only to further the impact of Frank’s words.  “Solo (Reprise)” is essentially an extended Andre 3000 verse, but the flow of the song fits into the album easily, ironing over the transition from the laid back beat of “Nights” to the intense distortion of “Pretty Sweet”.

In the same way that the album shifts attention to certain features without fully removing the spotlight from Ocean himself, the album also lifts ideas from classic artists to offer brief tributes.  This strategy comes into place on “Seigfried,” where Ocean lifts a vocal line from Elliot Smith, whom he credits in his art zine “Boys Don’t Cry.”  For the most part, Ocean just offers beautiful melodic work on the song, but he takes a break from his own styling to repeat the lyrics and melody from Smith’s “a fond farewell:” “this is not my life/it’s just a fond farewell to a friend.”  On Endless, Frank took influence from an Isley Brother song and extended his reach into various other sounds.  Here he shows just how embedded into his soul these influences can get.

Blonde is a big album and it’s easily a contender for the album of the year.  Frank Ocean has returned without any sense of disappointment.  A new-found maturity comes through as Ocean advances the art of belting one’s heart out, with songwriting genius adding more weight to every uttered word.  Perhaps the slimmest lack of contrast is present and perhaps Ocean spends a bit too much time on 1-2 minute songs, but this record is just about as good as it gets.

-Donovan Burtan

Frank. 9/10

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Frank Ocean-Endless: Album Review

Frank Ocean put himself in a tough place.  Opening a career with a 17 track album, complete with massive standout tracks, catchy singles, and front to back appeal gave his listeners a long list of expectations for the follow-up.  This combined with a four-year waiting period that left fans at their wit’s end, meant that Ocean had to defy the possibilities of the typical album to achieve greatness.  With Endless, Ocean began his attempt at destroying the album cycle.  Two weekends after the announced release date of his new album, Ocean released a visual album with 18 tracks.  Operating as a prelude to the more refined Blonde, which would be released two days later, Endless emphasizes effortless, natural songwriting, each song sounding like an off-the-cuff melodic exploration.  Perhaps the title alludes to the overall flow of the piece.  Although Ocean has individual song titles, the album operates better in its cohesive state, a seemingly endless melodic development guiding our ears throughout with mild aesthetic changes adding to the over-arching thematic development.

Beginning with lush synthesizers and a mysterious computerized voice reading words about an apple device, the album immediately captures the mysteriousness of the presented video.  Sleek black and white dominate the visual offering a perfect representation of the raw, unfinished nature of the sonic space.  Soon after the non-specific opening, Ocean enters into a glorious falsetto effort, covering the song “At Your Best (You Are Love)” by the Isley Brothers.  This song showcases Frank at his most exposed with tiny, aquatic keyboards accompanying his soaring voice.  Next we are reminded of Ocean’s ability to make simple lyrical phrases sound effortlessly beautiful as his overlapping vocals speak about a tight living situation: “duplex in New Orleans east… my four cousins stay with me.” Non-descript vocals bubble on “Mine” before Ocean raps casually over a looming beat on “U-N-I-T-Y.”  The end of “U-N-I-T-Y,” shifts tone a bit to give us the first taste of Frank’s raw, high-pitched vocal talents.  Slightly strained words soar making for a breath-taking emotional impact.

The middle of the album is composed of quick-hitting explorations into unfinished melodies; “Comme des Garçons” floats around in a slight latin tinge, “Wither” places Frank’s slightly manipulated voice alongside some lightly strummed guitars, and “In Here Somewhere” brings beats and keyboards into play accompanied by an even more buried vocal effort.  The song structures shift back to more full-length efforts by “Rushes.”  Here, a full-fledged gospel song emerges from the subtle beginning, Ocean showcasing a different approach to the stripped back guitar and vocal approach of his more incomplete tunes.  “Rushes To” presents another juxtaposition, capturing the latin spirit of “Comme des Garçons,” but giving Ocean room to belt his heart out by the end.  The last bit of the piece playfully stretches on with Ocean sharing a few lines on “Higgs” before the return of the computerized voice from the beginning of the album, which rides out on various dance beats.

Besides the overall unrefined nature of the album, Ocean offers an emphasis on process.  The Isley Brothers cover that kicks off the album obtains a classic soul sound.  Almost nothing is added to the vocal work, the melody being the main focus of the song.  As the project moves forward, Ocean continuously draws inspiration from this melody and time period, but the addition of more and more modern sounds slowly push the songwriting to modern day.  This displays a mastery of taking influence.  One of the aspects of Channel Orange that made it so appealing was the combination of different sounds.  It is interesting to hear an up close and personal take on Ocean’s techniques for modernizing genres that he holds dear.

Endless is not an outgoing project; Ocean remains subdued within the sonic space throughout.  Therefore, the fact that the work is able to maintain intriguing contrast throughout is a true testament to both Ocean’s songwriting talent and his uncanny ability to achieve a personal feel with his vocal delivery.  His voice has this naturalness to it that inspires close listening no matter what he has to say, even if everything said falls within the same relative sonic location.  Perhaps this is why he struggles with songwriting.  When blessed with a gift that automatically entertains, artists often rely too heavily on it.  Ocean recognizes that his voice is powerful, but the neo-soul idiom requires more in order to push boundaries.  It is clear that countless hours have been spent considering instrumentation, development, production, and everything that goes into the impact of a piece of music.  Endless itself does not necessarily encompass all of this in each song, as the whole process of songwriting is pondered throughout, but the subtle changes that accompany the beautiful nature of Frank’s voice push his natural talent to glorious emotional heights.

Although Frank Ocean’s music can be considered minimalist due to the small amount of instruments and sounds in each song, his idea of releasing an album never comes without an immense amount of emotional weight.  This past weekend, Ocean emerged from the shadows to drop his next manifesto.  The first step was a B-sides album that gave an inside look into the process of songwriting and the dissection of influence.  Ocean’s vocals spill out blissfully throughout, his natural talent enough to conjure beauty, and his songwriting prowess offering just enough to create the contrast necessary for greatness.

-Donovan Burtan

Frank Ocean begins his return in a big way. 8/10

Steve Lehman-Sélébéyone: Album Review

S�l�b�yone album cover

Jazz and hip-hop coexist along similar planes, however, a fusion of the two often results in a tendency towards one particular aesthetic.  For The Roots, the soundscape certainly leans more towards hip-hop, with the jazz induced horn improvisations providing a throwback sound.  Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly falls under a similar category, despite the tune “For Free? (Interlude),” which places Lamar’s fierce flow alongside be-bop influenced quartet playing.  Robert Glasper and Christian Scott lean in the opposite direction.  Their records breathe improvisation, an occasional hip-hop beat or rap verse sneaking into the ensemble sound to achieve a sense of modernity.  On his new record Sélébéyone, Steve Lehman is nearly dead center.  His angular, modern-jazz melodies perfectly complement the jumping overtones of Gaston Bandimic’s flow with vivid production pulling from both idioms.  Rhythm also plays a big role in the album, each song encompassing different influences in the underlying bass line, challenging the soloists to exist outside of their typical comfort zone.

“Laamb” kicks of the album intensely; the ominous drones complement the vocal urgency with anxious piano arpeggiations adding to the menacing ensemble sound.   Slowly a beat emerges with both rappers presenting brief verses, before ceding the space to Lehman and Maciek Lasserre for a long-form sax duet.  The song serves very well as an open-ended introduction: none of the soloists completely expose themselves with the lyrics remaining relatively esoteric alongside subtle improvisational melodies.  “Are You in Peace?” carries a bit more weight.  Many layers of Lehman’s sax playing linger over the modern jazz groove with highly articulated meter changes adding to the impact of the vocal and instrumental solos.  Both rappers touch upon moving on in the world while staying committed to their roots.  HPrizm suggests that his career “Depend[s] on the pen” but he “still spray[s] an aerosol,” implying that he has made it as a rapper, but still uses graffiti on the streets.  Bandimic also talks about his community, first suggesting that they are on stage creating art: “we’re flourishing as God intended,” then reminding the world that they are still at war: “There is no peace and no love today, only war.”

The following tune, “AKAP,” provides a decline in sonic activity.  Bandimic simply shares words over an electronic beat to release some of the tension that has been amassed over the first two songs.  “Origine” essentially throws the listener back into the thick of things.  Another ominous synthesizer beginning leads into a heavy beat with verses from each rapper as well as high intensity improvisations from keyboard and saxophone.  Similar events occur on “Cognition” with a bit more time given to the instrumentals.  The back side of the record may stand out a bit less than the front, but “Dualism” provides a dramatic high point as HPrizm is left in ambience with eerie melodies courtesy of Lehman; “Bamba” then ends the album off on a high note, its seven minute length filled to the brim with fiery performances.

The fact that Lehman’s group have placed rap within an advanced rhythmic space is no small feat and it may be the driving force behind the album’s ability to speak as both a work of contemporary jazz and hip hop.  Syncopated underlying bass lines provide the listener with varying rhyme schemes as the rappers are forced out of their comfort zone.  The rhythmic conception is also not entirely comfortable to the more jazz experienced players.  From bass-driven, African rhythms to slight London grime-tinged electronic beats the album presents a variety of sounds with the soloists guiding each other throughout.  There truly is a trade-off taking place.  Another product of these varying rhythmic approaches is contrast.  Although the album is a bit lacking in memorable vocal hooks, Lehman and his ensemble achieve contrast with each tune presenting different rhythmic motives in different ways.  Just as the rhyme scheme is made more advanced by varying metric schemes, the melodic development is constantly being shifted as well, leaving the soundscape open for variation.

Sélébéyone comes together extremely well.  Not only do all of the soloists present well-constructed material, they successfully construct a fusion of idiom without over-emphasizing any individual player.  By displacing each other rhythmically, the players open a cultural dialogue in which style and delivery constantly oscillate, resulting in fresh sounds and musical conceptions.

-Donovan Burtan

Steve Lehman presents a fantastic example of jazz/hip-hop fusion. Perhaps the album could benefit from stand-out singles but the overall experience is fantastic. 8.5/10