R&B

Frank Ocean, “Blonde” (Boys Don’t Cry)

So much about Ocean’s gripping new album seems to put it in line with recent high-profile records by Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kanye West — from its short-notice release to its limited availability to its expansive roster of collaborators. Push beyond the branding strategy, though, and actually listen to “Blonde” and you quickly realize how different the R&B singer’s project is from “Lemonade,” “Anti” and “The Life of Pablo.”

Where those earlier albums seemed to take in as much of pop music as possible — to use every sound and texture at the disposal of today’s internet-equipped creator — “Blonde” is rigorously contained, almost ascetic in its clean-lined minimalism. One song is even called “Self Control.”

Many of the 17 tracks feature Ocean’s sturdy but yearning voice over acoustic or undistorted electric guitar; others add keyboards, strings or programmed beats but avoid the layered density that defines virtually everything on the radio — and that’s despite a crowded credits list that includes Beyoncé, West, Kendrick Lamar, Rick Rubin and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead.

Feverishly anticipated since Ocean’s Grammy-winning “Channel Orange” made him a star in 2012, this surprising effort answers breathless hype not with shouts but with one long exhalation. Which doesn’t mean that what Ocean has to say is perfectly straightforward. Unlike his A-list peers, he doesn’t seem interested here in statement-making along the lines of Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

Throughout “Blonde” Ocean sings about the pain of disappointment — of being let down by a potential romantic partner (“Good Guy”) or the longed-for experience of celebrity (“Nikes”). He spends plenty of time too sketching (or maybe reimagining) episodes from his past, as in “Pink + White.” A resident of New Orleans who moved to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina, Ocean seems to be recalling that fraught period of his life. But the rest of the song resists clear interpretation, as does most of the material on “Blonde.”

This isn’t messiness or laziness on the singer’s part. “Channel Orange” showcased his formal innovation and an all-too-rare R&B voice singing about same-sex love. But Ocean’s debut also reflected his old-fashioned belief in the value of committed work; it’s laced with worry about the trouble that can find idle hands.

You can imagine the frustration he must’ve felt as chatter accumulated that he couldn’t be bothered to finish his album, when in reality he was merely taking the time he felt necessary to get it right.

So what are we to make of these opposing impulses, this disarming blend of sonic clarity and lyrical ambiguity?

Early on “Blonde,” in the woozy “Nikes,” Ocean sings about identifying with the late Trayvon Martin because he “look just like me,” and that invocation feels significant beyond its obvious emotional weight. It suggests that Ocean is getting at the contradictions of an era in which guilt and innocence keep blurring, when even the hardest-seeming evidence can lead to an incomprehensible outcome.

He wants you to listen, then to wonder if that’s enough to understand.

MIKAEL WOOD, Los Angeles Times

 

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