Genre: Alternative R&B, Neo-Soul

Is it just me, or did the hype surrounding Frank Ocean’s Blond almost set it up to be a more commercial pop release? Following a line of hip hop/R&B releases successfully fed through Apple Music’s subscription service – Rihanna’s ANTI, Drake’s Views, Chance the Rapper, most recently Young Thug – I began to expect more of the same from Frank Ocean. I forgot how experimental Channel ORANGE was and was almost caught off guard by the experimentalism of Blond when I sat down to listen to it.

Blond has a different flavour to Channel ORANGE though. Instead of building on an R&B sound like in the flourishing, danceable epic, Pyramids, the music in Blond seems to take away from it, stripping us back to basics. Channel ORANGE was warmer, almost seductive. Blond is cold.

Everything about Blond is personal. It just sounds personal. There are features from Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Bon Iver – but if you didn’t know they were there they would be hardly noticeable. A lot of the songs have no drums, often carrying themselves just on Frank’s vocals and the strum of a couple of electric guitars and some other sounds. Frank goes from sweet falsetto to the deep, sharp tone of his almost-rapping in moments. In fact his voice is so decorative that when I tried to play the album casually when surrounded by others it was hard to let it drift into the background. It was too emotional, too engaging – almost annoying. But when you give it your attention and appreciate every flourish it can be extremely rewarding.

The feeling of Frank being alone sort of elevates him to a higher level – we want to hear what he has to say. Frank really has a gift for getting to the emotional essence of what he is singing about and succeeded highly in this in Channel ORANGE, with its often socio-political subject matter. In Blond’s opening track ‘Nikes’, the way he uses a sort of casual phrase to address Trayvon, the 17 year old African American student shot dead by police in 2012, comes in just at the right point as his strained, vocoded drawl changes chord. ‘RIP Treyvon, the n***a look just like me.’ But the subject matter of Blond is much more frequently love-oriented. On so many of the tracks when Frank croons ‘I will always love you’ or ‘I’d do anything for you’, the instrumentals create the impression that Frank is saying something prophetic, something deep. Really he isn’t, but it’s still startlingly personal and affective.

Like most great albums, Blond reveals more to you on every listen. Something new in the background of the track, a new flourish in Frank’s voice or a whole section you completely forgot about because you were obsessing over other parts. All the tracks have something strong about them – even the short ones. ‘Pretty Sweet’ breaks out into drum and bass, ‘Close to You’ could be a song in itself from the addictiveness of its beat. Even ‘Be Yourself’, consisting simply of an endearing voicemail message from Frank’s friend’s mother circa the time he went to college and ‘Facebook Story’ which is artist Sebastian talking about how a girlfriend broke up with him are interesting to listen to and memorable, humble and honest.

Ironically for me the strongest tracks are those with the catchiest hooks like ‘Ivy’ and ‘Nights’. But ‘Ivy’ with its main lyrics ‘I thought that I was dreaming, when you said you loved me’, treads a line between confession and courtship – pop music turned just a bit more personal. And the catchy almost Drake-esque hook of ‘Nights’ including ‘rolling marijuana that’s a cheap vacation, every day shit, every night shit,’ is a confession that could connect to an audience just off the mainstream. With Blond, Frank Ocean secures his position as a true indie hero.

4/5

Listen (and watch the amazing video)http://goo.gl/GbyNa6

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