What comes to mind when you think R&B?
Rhythmic grooves, layers of auto-tune? Perhaps a drunken 3am boogie to ‘Ignition’ by R. Kelly? Or maybe, as a fellow anxious soul, you expect a man who insists he has lots more “dollar” than you, plus plenty of bitches and hoes, thank you very much.
Whatever your inclinations, artistry and innovation aren’t commonly associated with R&B. This seems unfair, especially considering recent landmarks in the genre; Beyonce’s Lemonade, a deeply personal record, tackled feminism and racial discrimination head-on. Tremors of creativity are coursing through the mainstream, although few have matched the earthquake wrought by Frank Ocean.
Since his soul-infused, bi-curious debut channel ORANGE dropped in 2012, fans have been pining for more sounds from the Californian recording artist. Following weeks of deceptive release dates, Ocean unveiled Blonde this weekend, after live-streaming an unanticipated visual album, Endless. This surprise twin-release, with neither under the expected moniker Boys Don’t Cry, captures the enigma of Frank Ocean perfectly. Likewise, Blonde encapsulates the creative vision that defined its predecessor. Yet it’s looser somehow, abandoning melodic hooks for a deeper meditation into mood and sound.
Opening track ‘Nikes’ is synth heavy, with electronically altered voice layered over a trip-hop beat. By ‘Self Control’, though, soft electric guitar supports untouched vocals that beg “keep a place for me”, highlighting Ocean’s soothing tones and lyrical honesty. This breadth of style, from soft heartbreak to striking hip-hop, is testament to his versatility. Adaptability is also evident in Blonde’s many collaborations. But despite a collection of impressive guest appearances, including Beyonce and Kendrick, their presence is secondary, simply shading for the bigger picture.
As the album progresses, dancing through tongue-in-cheek skits like ‘Facebook Story’, the softer moments truly stand out. The stripped-back production of ‘Solo’ lends the lyrics an alternative interpretation: “I’m so low”. On ‘White Ferrari’, with subtle nods to Beatles’ classic ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, acoustic guitar underpins a lamenting “I care for you still”.
This fragility is what makes Blonde irresistible, even in the absence of radio-friendly tracks like ‘Thinkin Bout You’. Frank Ocean is R&B grown up, grown self-conscious. And it’s definitely artistic.
Thinking R&B? Think again.