Finally, here it is. The impact- rightly – of Frank Ocean‘s 2012’s album Channel Orange was such that the proper follow-up (i.e. not including mixtapes and visual albums) was going to be anticipated. Heck, even if the only noteworthy track on that album had been the frankly jaw-dropping ‘Pyramids’ people would have been waiting impatiently for what happened next. And yes, after numerous possible release dates it’s suddenly appeared just like that. This is, of course, barely comment worthy in 2016 when we’ve seen a whole load of artists suddenly announce albums are here right now over the course of the past decade, Jay Z and Beyonce to name two (it’s probably still easier for successful and established artists to release records this way this than new artists – but that’s a discussion for another time). But his use of visual and aural teasing on social media is perhaps is part of his art.
It’s probably not overstating the case to say that this is the most eagerly anticipated album since Kanye West‘s The Life Of Pablo. Like West, Ocean is lauded as a visionary, and so far has managed to avoid the latter’s extreme media circus. Like a lot of great albums – and the first listen through suggests this is a great album an exploration of identity and youth as well as growth- there’s so much to take in here that more than one listen is required. It’s not a beats heavy album- ‘Pretty Sweet’ being a notable exception. In many ways, it’s a stripped down album that has been labelled Avant-garde Soul. And, truly, this is soul music looking forwards.
The album opens with ‘Nikes’. The first track to be released from the album (a mere 24 hours before), this initially sounds impenetrable, before a couple of plays later revealing itself to be as essential as ‘Pyramids.‘ His voice sounds so distorted it’s bewildering at first and yet compelling within a few listens. Dealing with the fallen Pimp C, A$AP Yams and of course, Trayvon Martin it’s sadly all too current for 2016, but a brilliant start to the album.
The list of collaborators alone is quite something, including Andre 3000, Jamie XX and Kendrick Lamar. It’s not always clear what the role of some – including Brian Eno and David Bowie – has been. Even more intriguing is how some of them are actually used. One of the early highlights is the gorgeous ‘Pink + White’ – a lovely summery song in waltz time. It features Beyoncé on backing vocals yet as has doubtless been pointed out a million times online already, Ocean is so quietly confident of his work he’s got one of the most famous women in the world just singing wordless backing vocals on the last verse of the track. The involvement of The Beatles is the re-imagining of Revolver’s ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ on the rather lovely ‘White Ferrari’.
In the parlance of the seventies, this is a headphones album. That’s in the sense of the – pardon the phrase – sonic nuances that lie within that require the listener’s full attention. It confirms once more just how essential Ocean is as an artist, not just as a singer-songwriter. It seems likely that this album will feature highly on End of Year polls, and that is utterly deserved.