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GOING DEEP WITH FRANK OCEAN

Back in 2011, I was working as a song pitcher for producers and songwriters trying to place material with label A&Rs—a potentially heartbreaking pursuit for any music person, to be honest—when a demo from producer client Dapo Toriomo came into the queue, with a topline and scratch vocal by Lonny Breaux. The song was called “Back to You.”  It had been written in a session for another artist but was now on the market, an orphan. 

And from the very first listen, I emotionally bonded with this song. It was literally a rough, but it swept me away with its tender, romantic and vulnerable story about waking up as a couple together in bed, told over music. And charmed doesn’t even begin to explain the effect Breaux’s raw vocal had, because he had that, even then. I treasured the song; it remains in my iTunes favorites to this day. 

Well, for one good reason or another in that construct and at that time, this demo was never a fit anywhere, and I was a complete failure in trying to get it placed. That was years before this session writer Lonny Breaux became Frank Ocean. But when he emerged from the shadows with Nostalgia Ultra, I was like, wow, that’s you—you from that song I can’t part with. Never forgetting the immediate connection I had to his music, his VOICE, the way he sang cutting lyrics that I memorized, because how can anyone forget something like, “And if the sun rises behind you, I don’t think I notice, though.” You don’t notice the sun because you are so enraptured by the light in your lover’s eyes? Whoa. 

That’s a story about the visceral power of Frank Ocean’s music, during a time when I think even he would tell you that he wasn’t even really trying.

Blonde is affecting but subtle in its power; this is a record built to last over many, many plays. 

Fast-forward five years, and his newest album, Blonde, is in the world. After Ocean teased us like cats with a laser pen around its actual release, then managed to drop the companion piece/visual album Endless (which almost literally demonstrated the arduous journey that is often the creative process and has its own set of truly remarkable songs), a video for the first single “Nikes” and a collectible art magazine titled Boys Don’t Cry appeared within one weekend. It was so much output from him that the Twitter memes sprung up immediately, including paranoid tweets like, “Frank’s about to disappear for years now.” 

And, of course, Blonde was well worth the long, long wait. Because Ocean has delivered again on his deeply personal and unique blend of hypnotic pop, giving us something that challenges our psyches with experimental production structures—woven together by vocal arrangements that will stop you in your tracks—and then all sequenced like a real story so that the album plays as a unified experience. Blonde is affecting but subtle in its power; this is a record built to last over many, many plays. It’s on the second or third listen that you really settle in, and that dynamic may indeed result in a very long tail for an album that has been birthed in the streaming era (and is yet another stunning exclusive for Apple Music). 

There are songs that stand out, of course: “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” “Solo,” “Nights” and “Siegfried” are all moments worth noting, for sure, just as it’s fun to hear Andre 3000 emerge for a verse on “Solo (Reprise)” or Kendrick Lamar faintly in the background on “Skyline To.” But despite the “collaborations”—David Bowie, Kanye West, Jamie xx, Beyoncé, The Beatles, Brian Eno, Pharrell and Elliott Smith were all named as contributors—this isn’t a project with features. Every song is embedded with distinctly wavy Ocean vibes.

This is why millions will listen intently to Blonde on repeat, as others did to earlier heroes like Marvin Gaye or Brian Wilson or Lennon and McCartney—artists who spoke through music with the language of a generation summed up sonically, in a way never heard before, yet so familiar to our souls—and that’s real soul music, isn’t it?  There’s fathomless emotional depth in this Ocean.

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