The end of the year is mercifully upon us. So many cultural icons and otherwise wonderful people have died and many other trash things have down down that I don’t have time to get to right now. But music, music has been good in 2016. My only problem is somewhere along the way I lost the steam to write about albums in the way that I wrote about Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Beyonce’s Lemonade. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t enjoyed more breezy albums from the likes of Nxworries, D.R.A.M., or A Tribe Called Quest, because I have and you should too if you haven’t yet treated yourself. It’s more that I’ve struggled to write about Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Solange’s A Seat at the Table with the same depth in which I dissected TLOP and Lemonade. Plus, others, elsewhere did it better. Alas, I can’t consider the best of 2016, or move on to 2017, without saying a little something about two of the ten best albums of the year.
Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief when Frank Ocean’s Blonde, his proper follow up to his debut album Channel Orange, turned out to be worth the wait. Blonde is a continuation in the development Frank’s ability to express himself most naturally; which includes another visual project with accompanying music in Endless; plus a 300+ page personal literary magazine titled Boys Don’t Cry which features poetry, a screenplay, photos, and a physical CD copy of Blonde. But to focus on just Blonde for a second, Frank delivers the most forward stepping sounds of the future; mixed, blended, blurred, and distorted to perfect pitch. It’s pure emotion reflecting the depth of his soul, expressed in myriad ways and on differing planes.
For a while I planned on focusing on a particular track and breaking it down line by line. The most obvious track for this treatment is “Nights”, which I resisted writing about but as the days went by I came to realize I would be playing myself for going out of my way to not write about the best song, and there’s an ancient American proverb that goes: “don’t ever play yourself,” so I won’t.
Broadly, “Nights” is special for a number of reasons: it’s the centerpiece of the album, it’s the first track to have any upward tempo, it finds a balance with the guitar and drums which feature heavily to varying degrees throughout the album, and it and flexes Frank’s electronic prowess by morphing into something completely different by the end of the 5:07 while keeping the song’s DNA intact.
It also gives me an excuse to talk about “Pyramids” — that magnum opus of a 9:53 track which serves as the centerpiece of Channel Orange. Due to their position and ambitious sonic and lyrical gymnastics, “Pyramids” and “Nights” represent each of their respective albums fairly well. Comparing the two: on “Pyramids” as on Channel Orange, Frank Ocean is confident and bombastic at his brightest, and washed out by desire at his darkest, with clear delineations; but on “Nights” as on Blonde, Frank Ocean accomplishes more with less, from the jump it’s more direct and the allusions within are more concrete. Whereas “Pyramids” gives you the feeling of launching off towards space until achieving weightlessness, “Nights” is a more grounded yet still wild ride in the passenger seat as Frank whips us around the corridors of his memories.
I’m not the first to say it but “Nights” really is unfair. The 2nd act delivers a sort of warped millennial ethos at a depth Drake never comes close to reaching. Then “Nights” leads into Andre 3000’s “Solo (Reprise)”, which is completely different than “Solo” but shares the same DNA — their contrast widened by their space on the album, each enhanced by leading well into the track that follows.
In this the Information Age, the age of endless and readily accessible nostalgia, where we bare our hearts on our timelines: Frank Ocean is this generation’s, this country’s foremost reveler in nostalgia. Nostalgia: we Millennials’ (and really all of America’s) greatest affliction and advantage, a luxurious thought few others can afford, through rose´ tinted lenses no less. Frank has made it so that we the listeners’ relationship with him too is based purely on nostalgia. We’re privy to his life 4 years at a time (not that fans should feel entitled or privy to any artist’s personal life, but that’s a topic for another day) and that mysteriousness deepens the public interest in his art.
Aside from some rare, recently confirmed tour and festival dates, Frank Ocean rarely projects into the future, and even his meditations on the present arrive to us years later — except via a few lines on the first track “Nikes”, the last track “Futura Free”, and the occasional Tumblr post. That is, except in terms of the soundtrack to the lyrics which make up the songs on Blonde. Sonically the album has surprises at nearly every turn and are very much of the future; that’s his thing, and that’s why we can’t wait to see what he’ll will come up with and share with us next.
* * *
To go with my notes on Frank Ocean’s Blonde I’ve been meaning to share a few thoughts on Solange’s A Seat at the Table. As far as album titles go, A Seat at the Table makes Solange’s first proper release in the last 4 years worth noting, worth listening to, and worth a spot in the cultural consciousness at large — not to mention the cover art, but that’s just the surface.
The album begins with two very cool and mood setting intros in “Rise” and “Weary”, which are followed by the first bit of Master P’s personal development podcast in the first interlude, but ASATT really gets going with “Cranes in the Sky”. At least that’s where I usually start the album as I can’t wait to really get into it (same with “Summer Friends” on Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book), even if that means skipping otherwise good tracks. “Cranes in the Sky” was one of two songs (“Don’t Touch My Hair”) released as lead tracks with accompanying music videos and rightfully so.
Aside from the soothing melody built upon strings and a classic heavy boom-boom-pap sort of beat that are all over ASATT, “I tried to drink it away / I tried to put one in the air” kicks off a deeply relatable series of bars and verses that carry on through the rest of ASATT as Solange continually balances both classic and contemporary rhythms and social issues. In other words Solange bridges the gap between classic and contemporary R&B in a way that speaks to the moment, whereas Frank Ocean does so in a way that still leans toward the future. Both serve to de-stigmatize the word “contemporary” with regard to R&B and represent the potential new heights of the genre.
Solange’s use of non-musical supporting audio, which are oftentimes tacked onto the end of tracks as afterthoughts and typically referred to as skits, but here are isolated and labeled as interludes, is crucial. In this manner the interludes are more numerous, more deliberately situated within the structure of the album, and necessary listens for a full understanding of the album and of the artist’s vision — which is one of unmitigated blackness. That Solange has chosen her parents Matthew and Tina Knowles, and the original hip-hop mogul and patron saint of New Orleans, Master P, to deliver these sermons which provide concrete cultural context to the black experience is well executed in the least, genius at most, and undoubtedly inspirational on the whole. Like P says (paraphrasing): if you don’t understand the record, you just might not understand us, and it’s simply not for you. But you should give it a spin anyway to find out, you might learn something, you might feel something. Ultimately that’s why I listen to music and why I go through the trouble to write about and share it.
I can’t leave without mentioning that people rightly went nuts over the two vintage Lil Wayne verses on “Mad”. Sampha delivers a fitting feature on “Don’t Touch My Hair”, and The-Dream and BJ The Chicago Kid contribute pitch perfect vocals and vibe to “F.U.B.U.”. Yet Solange remains the star of each track, clearly conducting with confidence and consistently delivering clear messages to those who would listen and follow her lead by asserting themselves and their blackness in a way they perhaps hadn’t before. A Seat at the Table is simultaneously warm and inviting, but is also as real and revealing as it gets with regard to Southern black (feminine) identity and being done playing by others’ social rules. She’s got a lot to be mad about, and with A Seat at the Table Solange has figured out her own best approach to letting the world know. That’s all any artist is striving to do, I think, I’ll let you know if I figure it out for myself. In the meantime I’ll take notes and apply lessons learned from Frank and Solange.