The good news last week for Frank Ocean was that even people who knew little of his music were talking about him. The more problematic news was that the subject of conversation wasn’t his songwriting or singing, but a tumblr note in which he revealed his unrequited love, at age 19, for another man. It was a risky move for a 24-year-old whose public career was just taking off, in a milieu (hip-hop) where homophobic attitudes are common.
Now that his debut album is here, we can see how Ocean forced his own hand. A few of these songs deal with a male love object and, with no preemptive answer, the questions would have come quickly, possibly crowding out discussion of this strong and subversive record.
Subversive because Ocean exploits the smooth seductive wiles of contemporary R&B to scrape away at the nature of reality and illusion. This record is full of people who want refuge in the tight closeup of a love song, or the cocoon of a comfortable life, but who can’t dispel the dissonance imposed by the world outside, or within.
Sweet Life depicts dislocated lives of easy pleasure, of “keepin’ it surreal” with pills and sunshine, in music that’s all about feeling good. “Why see the world, when you got the beach?” Ocean sings, and you sense how small that sandy island can be. Super Rich Kids surveys a similar condition in a more disappointed tone. In another setting, Ocean’s soaring chorus – “I’m searchin’ for a real love” – could sound like an R&B cliché, but here it feels like an existential cri de coeur, and sets him apart from an even bleaker R&B talent, The Weeknd.
Bad Religion arises from a taxi ride with a Muslim cabbie, whose assured faith seems a distant dream for someone who “can’t tell you the truth about my disguise.” The subdued organ chords imply worship gone bad, as the singing narrator faces up to his self-destructive cult for an unreachable man.
The call-and-response opening of Sierra Leone makes Ocean’s free-singing self seem like a puppet controlled by another self, literally speaking behind the scenes. That’s a split integral to seduction, and the tune plays that way, becoming shinier and sleeker as the lyrics veer unexpectedly into reflections on an infant, and what she doesn’t know yet. Innocence and jaded experience merge into a force-field of overlapping meanings.
Pyramids opens with descriptions of rituals inside Egyptian pyramids, through ever more elaborate changes on a fixed harmonic ground, then switches to a present-day princess hustling tricks at the Luxor pyramid in Las Vegas. Monks goes the other way, beginning with the star’s view of his groupies and morphing into a storybook scene of lovers pursued through a jungle by an army. It’s like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novel, and the point is that it feels no more fantastical than the needy, grasping situations Ocean can see with his own eyes.
Ocean’s voice is a light, flexible thing, and his instrumentals follow suit, often painting the scene with very little bass, remaining clear even when spiralling into a giddy swirl of multiple tracks. His tunes stay with you, and when they seem to circle the spot (as in the druggy Crack Rock), it’s with a narrative purpose. A few are catchy-cute: the tune of Lost could almost work for a Gorillaz song. This number, by the way, is unambiguously about a female love object. Truth or fantasy? There’s still a lot we don’t know about Frank Ocean, but this revealing and innovative disc gives you more each time you listen.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
We Were Born to Glory
Royal Wood (Maple)
I’ve always thought of Royal Wood’s dapper and pretty balladry as something for the dolls, less for the guys. His new album feels different. There’s a bit more charge to his trim song-craft – one might even say punch. The Thick of It strums like a missing Traveling Wilbury; Hard Thing to Find is a similar thing, but bigger with horns. Soothing melodies are in a grouping with those of Ryan Adams and Ron Sexsmith. Lyrically, the Toronto crooner is thoughtfully motivated, concerned with doubt and renewal. The latter thrust prevails: We are all bound for glory, if we could just get out of our own way. Brad Wheeler
Royal Wood plays Vancouver Folk, July 14; Ottawa Bluesfest. July 15; Edmonton Folk Festival, Aug. 10; Summerfolk, Owen Sound, Ont., Aug. 18
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
The Flaming Lips (Warner)
The Flaming Lips will try anything once, and won’t hold back while doing it. This album of collaborations, out at last on CD (it dropped digitally in April), shows the Oklahoma rockers dancing with 13 different partners, with new steps every time. The range is enormous, from the electro-snarling opener with Ke$ha, to the battered-rock shamblethon with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, to the choral love-in with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Nick Cave shows up for some hot damnation-tent revivalism in You, Man? Human? Yoko Ono stops in for the rumbling affirmative Do It! and Erykah Badu delivers a massive woozy cover of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. She has since denounced that track’s NSFW video, which was withdrawn (but you can still see it here). Robert Everett-Green
Flo Rida (WEA)
It used to be that “pop rap” was just watered-down hip hop, but Flo Rida is pop with a capital “P.” With guest vocals by Sia and Georgi Kay and acoustic guitar laced through the Euro-style club beats, the result is as Top 40 as Rihanna or Ke$ha, and just as catchy. Although Rida rides the flow adroitly, hyping the beat while hinting at melody, it’s the production that seals the deal, from the infectious swagger of Whistle (a naughtier update on Lauren Bacall’s famous come-on) to the pumping bass and airy refrain of In My Mind, Pt. 2. A guilty pleasure perhaps, but a pleasure nonetheless. J.D. Considine
Dusted (Hand Drawn Dracula)
This sounds like Great Lake Swimmers left to die – skin, bones, and the needle and the damage done. With their side-project LP, the twosome of Nova Scotian songwriter Brian Borcherdt and producer Leon Taheny have made something lo-fi and echoing, grungy and droning, druggy and not distracted, sometimes melodically pop-like and with slight synthetic ambience. Tensely minimalist, it’s a wide-awake dream, either disorienting or soothing, depending on where you’re at. -B.W.