Some artists can release one album and have that project become so popular – and be so good – that it leaves fans clamoring for its follow-up. That first album becomes somewhat of a teaser, a taste of what is yet to come from the promising artist, and one that provides the benchmark against which any subsequent releases are compared.
Then there are other artists who release an album with the opposite effect. Theirs may be popular for the moment, but that moment is fleeting, and the artist’s follow-up isn’t met with nearly the amount of fanfare that its predecessor was. Those artists often drop from the musical radar and are sometimes never heard from again.
The post-R&B (and sometimes hip-hop) artist Frank Ocean falls in the former category. He released his second album, blond, on August 20 – after a four-year hiatus – prompting his newfound fans (after the success of 2012’s channel ORANGE) to flock to their Apple Music and iTunes accounts and stream or purchase the 17-track project, with many thanking the heavens above for their favorite artist’s return.
The result? blond enters the Billboard 200 album chart at Number One for the chart week dated Sept. 10 (with 276,000 album-equivalent units sold in its first six days), becoming Ocean’s first Number One album in the process.
To understand how highly anticipated blond was, one need only scour the Twitter feeds and Facebook posts accompanying each passing “release date” that had been promised by Ocean over the past couple years. In the years leading up to its eventual release, some people actually cursed his name, questioning the artist’s devotion to his fans because he had toyed with them so many times. Never mind that he is indeed an artist, one who wants to make sure the project bearing his name is just right, not only for him but those same fans who would no doubt be passing judgment on the effort immediately upon its release.
Or maybe the toying was done with less noble motives in mind. Perhaps it was just a business move and he wanted to avoid the typical bootlegging that occurs when would-be thieves have advance knowledge of coming release dates. The more heads-up there is, the more likely it is for bogus copies to make their way to the black market. Actually, that reason is just as valid as the first one I offered. (Notably, blond was released on Ocean’s own label, Boys Don’t Cry, after a controversial parting with the label that released channel ORANGE: Def Jam Recordings.)
So I pose this question to those fans who so patiently waited for Ocean’s return – both diehard and casual fans – did your favorite beatnik R&B artist get it right? Was blond worth your wait?
I have my own views, but first let me set the stage for what I believe were some very high expectations set for Ocean this time around, not only by fans and critics, but by the artist himself. That first album, channel ORANGE (which peaked at No. 2 upon its release in 2012), was indeed a very good album. But it was an album that arguably would not have been as critically acclaimed – or even noticed – had it not been for the hype surrounding a very personal revelation by Ocean at the time.
The artist had just revealed that his first true love had been another man, making him the first known R&B/Hip-Hop artist to come out.
Now the law of averages makes it clear to anyone with a brain that Ocean is not the only homosexual or bisexual artist out there. He may not even consider himself either of those things (anymore?), but he made it a thing in the R&B world – alerting the genre’s core followers to a dark corner place (out of the closet) where black artists in particular just don’t go – at least not publicly.
That fact got him some extra attention, at a time when he had a new album hitting the market. Otherwise, what made Ocean any different from other neo soul artists, whose genre had until then gone relatively neglected in the mainstream musical landscape?
Nonetheless, the album went on to critical acclaim, ranking as the “best album of 2012” on several reputable publications’ critics lists, and selling over 600,000 copies in its first two years of release – a whole bunch in this day and age for a then-unknown R&B act. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Urban Contemporary Album (after being nominated for four awards that year). The artist and, more importantly, the album dominated the musical conversation during 2012-13, ultimately rendering the news of Ocean’s coming out a mere footnote in the overall scheme of things.
But it also set the bar pretty high for any follow-up project. And so it went that Ocean used the Internet to tease us about promised release dates that came and went, often sending his followers into a frenzy. It brought to my mind a musical legend who famously took just two years between albums in the mid 1970s before releasing what would become his signature album in 1976, Songs In The Key Of Life. That “long” wait (at the time) built up anticipation so high that it made Stevie Wonder the first American artist to début at #1 on the album chart that fall.
Forty years later, Ocean’s delay tactics had many speculating that the album just wasn’t ready (implied: not good enough yet), or that the label was merely using this to build anticipation and set the stage for a high début sales week and a #1 Billboard chart entry.
That result was achieved, whether the result of nefarious marketing schemes or not, and now Ocean is the latest American to début at #1.
So back to the question: was it worth the wait?
Well, blond is indeed a good album, a very good one in fact. If you liked channel ORANGE, you’ll likely enjoy this one.
Ocean reportedly stated some time ago that his inspiration for blond were the Beach Boys and the Beatles, likely referring to their landmark 1966 albums, Pet Sounds and Rubber Soul (or Revolver), respectively. He thus succeeds in creating an album whose experimentation with different sounds, structures and vocal effects lives up to the expectations set by invoking such legendary ’60s references.
True music heads who come to the listening table with expectations of real instrumentation devoid of synthesized sound effects, altered vocals, and electronically programmed beats will have to temporarily suspend those demands, expand their minds and realize that this is the 21st century, and Ocean is indeed one of its products.
The songs on blond are full of those special effects, but they’re also less structured and predictable than those on his full début album (another trait to which traditional musicologists will likely have a harder time adjusting). Few, if any, of the tracks have a traditional verse/chorus/bridge structure, which feels consistent with Ocean’s increasingly alternative-R&B direction.
Many of the songs have no drumming at all, sounding instead like musical dreamscapes, with dark eerie keyboard riffs that make unexpected (but interesting) chord changes. They set the landscape for his vocals, which are often free style and void of any melody, occasionally drifting into rap territory.
Lyrically, Ocean tackles the typical subjects, which don’t offer much of a mind stretch. He makes the expected references to recent headlines (“RIP Trayvon, that n—a look just like me” in “Nikes”), and he addresses past relationships, sexual encounters and decadence (“smoking trees” and other variations).
The best songs on the album, in my opinion, are the earliest tracks. My three faves are “Pink + White” “Nights” and “Solo.” “Nikes” is the song that the label is purportedly pushing as the first single, and it also opens the album. Which reminds me of another 2010s trend: most of the tracks are of the one- or two-word-title variety, likely to make them more easily searchable on the Internet for streaming or downloading.
Good luck with that though. Without easily identifiable hooks and with titles that are not repeated incessantly in the lyrics, the songs won’t get much radio airplay and won’t be easily identifiable.
But that’s okay, blond is pretty good on its musical merits. It certainly stands up to anything else that’s out there now, and it may have very well been worth the wait.