Frank Ocean was long overdue for new music. The singer made one of the decade's signature albums four years ago, "Channel Orange," and ever since anticipation for a follow-up has been building.
Each year that passed without new Ocean heightened expectations to the point where some pundits were openly speculating a few months ago that no one could possibly live up to them.
After numerous teases, the singer finally delivered over the weekend: The release of "Endless," a "visual album" that played as the soundtrack to a 45-minute video, and then "Blonde" (Boys Don't Cry), a 60-minute, 17-track album that is being regarded as the official follow-up to "Channel Orange."
"Endless" is an extended meditation on process, the notion of "all good things take time," and the idea that record-making is akin to love-making. It does take time — four years, in this case — for an artist to get to know what he wants to express and how. The video shows Ocean donning work gloves in a wood shop and building what turns out to be an elaborate staircase. As visual albums go, it is no match for Beyonce's "Lemonade," which appeared earlier this year, and the music itself feels like a collection of sometimes lovely, sometimes underwhelming outtakes from a work in progress.
If nothing else, its transparency is illuminating: It is Ocean allowing his fans to watch him making something, an imperfect process that can be messy, full of false starts and creative cul-de-sacs, but it is beautiful all the same. Like a marriage or any long-term relationship, art requires work. Here is the work that few on the outside take into account when evaluating a work of art, "Endless" suggests. The staircase that emerges at video's end prompts a question: Where's it lead?
A day later, "Blonde" arrived as the answer. Heralded by the release of a video, "Nikes" lays out the album's ambitions. It's a critique of materialism with Ocean employing two distinct voices, like characters in a play, a recurring theme throughout the album and perhaps its finest sonic achievement. A party spirals out of control, the music rich but low key, a melange of organ and hovering synthesizers. Ocean uses distorting devices on his voice to add emotional texture and to enhance and sharpen the characters he briefly embodies. The upshot: They're all little slices of Ocean's personality with a role to play and they each sound distinct.
The album's guest list and production credits are long and noteworthy. They include Beyonce, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, Rick Rubin, even a Beatles songwriting credit. But few of these collaborations are obvious or intrusive. They are all folded seamlessly into the music. Beyonce's distant voice rolls in like sea mist on "Pink + White," and Kendrick Lamar becomes Ocean's alter ego in "Skyline To." The entire album plays like an Ocean view, clear and uncluttered by outsized cameos.
Guitars, usually delicate and distorted, guide many of the arrangements. Paired with Ocean's voice, which rarely overdoes anything, these minimalist riffs and finger-picked notes suggest a vague connection to Brazilian bossa nova — meditative, sultry, steeped in memory. In others, the arrangements evoke the golden age of psychedelia and progressive rock, especially in the break that splits "Nights." Much of the album takes place in a dream world that merges the past with a contemplation of the future. Songs don't so much start as drift into earshot, then slide into soft landings. They are designed to be heard in this particular sequence, a story that is both deeply personal and deeply evocative of sounds, places, lost summers, childhood.
"What a life, remember how it was," Ocean muses in one song. "We'll never be those kids again," he reminds his former lover in another. Memory becomes an aural narcotic on "Blonde." But the clarity of adulthood intervenes. Ocean turns over a minute of the album to an interlude by OutKast's Andre 3000, who speed raps brilliantly on "Solo (Reprise)" about another of the album's central themes: the bubble-bursting of adulthood. Even the music he listens to is fake: "I'm hummin' and whistlin' to those not deserving."
It all comes to a head in "White Ferrari," which briefly channels the melody of the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere." Ocean orchestrates his voice — at one point suggesting that it's a ghost shadowing his narrator, at another turning it into a choir. He sees the past through "dilated eyes" that "watch the clouds float," and he sounds like he could be a much older man feeling his mortality closing in. "If you think about it, it's over in no time, the best life," he sings.
Like the builder he plays in "Endless," the Ocean of "Blonde" is engaged in an act of love. The penultimate track, "Godspeed," plays like a goodbye to boyhood and an affirmation of what will endure. Ocean sings like he's in church, and his tone is open, a quiver of emotion audible. An organ plays, and it's as if he's envisioning the Last Supper: "The table is prepared for you." It turns out that while his fans were busy waiting, Frank Ocean was preparing a feast.
Greg Kot is a Chicago Tribune critic.
4 stars (out of 4)
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