Saturday, July 8, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 31: Frank Ocean, R&B's Prodigal Son

Dunno. Feels cheap, reductive...
I’m trying to clean up these posts, to make them look outward a little more than in. That’s all I’ll say about that.

How’d I Find It?
I probably first bumped into Frank Ocean by way of one of Too Good For Radio’s monthly playlists. Think I found a bad remix of Ocean’s “Pyramids” (which I can't find) the same month I picked up a solid remix of Kendrick Lamarr’s “Swimming Pools.” The pressure built steadily after that, whether by way of older people talking up his PBR&B appeal (hipster), or my kids talking him up due to his connections to Odd Future. He was everywhere for a while, basically…

Gateway Drug/Album
Channel Orange. I picked that one up three-four years ago, and always found it impressive. That’s as distinct from just “liking” it. By that I mean, Ocean feels like he’s doing something new…even though the specific thing he’s doing at least echoes older forms.

Notes, Music & Tracks
Because Frank Ocean has only two albums, it feels right to put fewer tracks on the playlist. Going with 10, in fact, which feels like a goddamn relief after weeks upon weeks of skipping past entire albums for other artists (then again, after Liz Phair, lesson learned).

All in all, both lyrically and in musical mood, listening to Frank Ocean feels a lot like just sitting with shit. He comes off as the sad guy at a party as much as anything, the one quietly taking stock after too many nights that run the gamut from great to disappointing to disastrous, and as everyone else keeps doing the same thing every weekend. I’ll confess directly that I pick this up more from sound/tone than lyrics (because I haven’t had enough time with his lyrics), but I detect a distinct “spectator/novelist” vibe in Ocean’s lyrics, just plain vivid storytelling with an updated take on R&B music to frame the lyrics. And I think that’s his main appeal – especially against the back-drop of his association with the far angrier/noisier Odd Future.

There’s not one song on either album I’d label “aggressive.” It’s implied above, but he plays from a mellow tempo and register, and never left it, not across two albums. As it happens, I like the songs I like off Channel Orange better than the songs I like off Blonde – though, I did include an equal number of both below and on the playlist. He’s just a little bouncier on his debut (…dunno, if life weighed down this kid already, he’s gonna struggle...)

For all the above, what I most admire about Frank Ocean is not so much uniqueness as specificity. He’s not the first person to put out songs like the ones he’s put out, but he’s the only one mining a vein one conscious step away (and in some unknown direction) from mainstream pop. Other artists sound similar to him, in other words, but the sound mostly comes out as “slow jams,” with the rest of the album staying tempo. Frank Ocean has one, at most, two gears. And he seems happy to stay in the one gear.

The most interesting question about Frank Ocean (and why can’t I just call him “Ocean”; srsly, why?), is where he’ll fit in the history of R&B, and of music generally. That assumes he will, but he’s no crazy aberration, but he’s also not exactly at the center of the zeitgeist, either, the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Then again, who is?

I sometimes wonder why I’m carrying out this particular mission. I think part of it grows from an urge to check on the artists I’ve listened to, loved, and admired. And that matters to me, 1) because I think a lot of them are very to very, very good; and 2) I’d hate for them to get lost for that reason. Look, I have a tiny audience, and rightly so. I’m flaky, erratic in what I post, and when and how I post it. Still, if I do and even 10 people read it, they have this circle of contacts that they might pass it on to and, voila, 20 years from now, when someone says “Frank Ocean,” they might say, “oh, hell yeah, that guy was awesome.” They might even say, “Yep, already on one of my favorite playlists.”

And that’s where Frank Ocean deserves to be. Sure, I usually like a little more “ups” in what I listen to, but Frank Ocean just comes off as guy with a particular take on the world. And one that’s worth knowing.

OK, I’m going to wrap up by listing the tracks that made the playlist I’ll post right after this goes up. I’m not sure I’ll do that when I lard future playlists with 20-25 songs, but I do feel like some artists songs have got lost in the 20-car-pile-ups that are my observations. At any rate, here’s the Frank Ocean Top 10:

Brilliant title/theme, even with (or especially with?) the mildly stalker-esque “outsider perspective.” That desperation feels relatable. I also appreciate the (relatively) “up-tempo” vibe; that’s the source of my light preference for Channel Orange.

And, I stand corrected; still, the manner of the up-tempo on this track is of a different type than “Forrest Gump.” The absence of ACTUAL percussion throws me (I mean, you can’t dance to it), but the expression of frustration/confusion feels nicely sincere. Also, Andre 3000.

My favorite all-time Frank Ocean track. Think this one has the best mix of musical elements, between the heavy (for him) percussion, and the pulsing of piano and organ, the poppiest underlying melody. Also, a delightfully despairing story about the decisive moment.

LOVE this one, too. The lilting, elegant piano couldn’t help but sway me, but when he adds that guitar strum to later verses…then the soft background vocals. It feels like a thin veneer, but, damn, it’s pretty/seductive!

It’s the chorus that sells this - so drama! - but the lounge-y opening notes hardly hurt. If you tie this to “Super Rich Kids” (Ooh, 5.a)! Double dip!), you have this great observational riff on spoiled kids.

6) Nights
It starts good – and it ties neatly back to the “ennui” peeped in the two songs above - but it carries on somewhat ambitiously, with shifts in tone/perspective…only to fold back into ennui. See?

I included this one mostly because it feels both representative of his larger work, while also feeling (again; sorry) ambitious. Also, I’m eternally fascinated by songs without distinct percussion. (Also, Bon Iver?)

A “missed connection” special, a brooding ditty about one of those twisted, unequal relationships.

9) Ivy
Something I read (think it was the “Genius” lyrics thing) described this as an “indie song.” Mmm…maybe. I think that sells Frank Ocean short for one. I appreciate this one because you feel the years between here and Channel Orange. Also, REALLY pretty guitar.

Just…impressive. Delivery, concept, desperation: an incredibly vulnerable track, the kind of stuff only a young man would have the sack to write. And it takes a great brain to translate that vulnerability. Just a damn good song. And, again, simply not something one hears a ton at random.

OK, that’s it. I’d actually appreciate notes on this versus the prior approach. Comment below, say something in 140 characters on twitter, DM me, etc. I feel like I get in my way sometimes on the other posts, and that’s just getting in the way of the musicians, and that's what this whole damn thing is about, so…

At any rate, Frank Ocean reminds me that music doesn’t stop, that there’s nothing wrong with reprising/modernizing an approach to music. Whatever he’s doing with sound and music, there’s something lonely about his work that’s both touching and relatable. And that emotional experience never goes away. Well worth anyone’s time.


  1. Jeff, keep it going man, these are crazy fun to read

  2. Thanks! Glad you like 'em. There's a balance in here that I want to hit...secret mission....