In the wake of his successful sophomore record Blonde, Frank Ocean has been reveling in his reclusion. Now a fully-fledged R&B auteur, Ocean is again subverting expectations by dropping some of the sunniest and fun-loving tunes since his debut Channel Orange, alongside more loose, subtle tracks reminiscent of his Endless visual album - all through his uncharacteristically public Blonded Radio spot on Apple’s Beats 1 Radio.
Biking (ft. Jay-Z & Tyler, the Creator)
Jay-Z opens ‘Biking’ over minimalist piano synth chords “What goes around comes around”, setting the tone thematically as Ocean and Tyler take on this overarching metaphor of “biking” and cycles in turn. Jay-Z keeps it short and sweet, using watches as another metaphor to briefly state his views on cycles: enjoy your prime.
Sweet acoustic guitar chords set the stage for Frank, who muses sombrely on a past companion. The drums enter with soft bass and popping snare hits, elevating the song as Ocean confidently addresses his present. The beat retreats a little as Frank moves on to contemplate his future, the potential for family and settling down in the context of his sexuality:
Ocean rides the beats on these new tracks like a rapper with melody, delivering triplet flows and ad-libs with a thoughtfulness beyond his contemporaries.
Tyler, the Creator offers little lyrically beyond obscure references but his delivery packs charisma and an impressively diverse flow that brings the track to Frank’s closing refrain: “got a million dollar bike, got me f*cked up”.
Ocean is clearly enjoying bringing more of a rap style into these new songs both in his own delivery and with his features, and that comes across in this fun, thoughtful track.
Chanel opens with a shuffling beat and mellow piano chords, and sees Ocean deliver some of his best lyrics to date. The “C both sides like Chanel” is a play on words and the corporation’s logo, an allegory of perspective running throughout the song, allowing Ocean to make profound comment on gender roles, sexuality, crime and race in just a few lines. Ocean flaunts his increasingly rapped style with heavy use of internal rhyme, flow switch-ups, wordplay and socio-political comment.
The instrumental subdues as Ocean passionately croons “It’s really you on my mind”, before the background noise suddenly intensifies in tandem with a vocal leap to a vulnerable falsetto, a climax of the track. Tasteful auto-tune elegantly furthers Ocean’s vulnerability as the tension of the instrumental releases.
Ocean introduces a playfully syncopated melody as the main beat returns, cooling the track to a soft touch-down. Frank highlights the beauty of subtlety here even better than on Endless and much of Blonde, and uses it to make one of his best statements yet.
P.S. There is a version with an A$AP Rocky verse (!) but sadly I can’t find a good quality version.
Another track with a sombre keyboard intro (seeing a pattern here, Frank). The auto-tune here is much less tasteful than its sparing usage on Chanel. Lens feels like another artist trying to be Ocean. His increasingly hip-hop influenced lyrical and vocal style isn’t pulled off as well here either, leaving little emotional impact despite the intimacy of the skeletal instrumental.
The instrumental build-up is patient, and things begin to pick up as the auto-tune becomes less severe, but there is isn’t enough interesting lyrical or instrumental material to tie the listener over until the drums enter with a disappointing climax.
Frank’s vocal delivery on this track is underwhelming and fails to take advantage of a potentially intimate and slow-paced instrumental build.
P.S. avoid the version with the Travis Scott feature: it’s potential is wasted by bad mixing and recording of Scott’s vocals.
Slide – Calvin Harris (ft. Frank Ocean & Migos)
ANOTHER PIANO INTRO. Nothing wrong with that of course if the track is good, which arguably it is. Whilst technically billed as a Calvin Harris tune, it was premiered on Ocean’s Blonded Radio like his other recent tracks. This track is summer jam material and the sunniest of the batch.
Ocean’s vocals are initially reminiscent of the opening of Blonde, Nikes, with pitch-shifted vocals, but the instrumental Calvin Harris conjures is disco-infused and upbeat. Ocean rides the beat in style with a coolly delivered chorus and verse.
Quavo’s verse is short, simple and sweet. Offset’s offers more diverse flow and lyrical content, easily outdoing the usual front-man. Thankfully both avoid their stagnating, signature triplet flows.
The peppy beat make predictable but satisfying minor variations throughout to keep it interesting. It’s a simple pop tune, and Ocean fits in snugly.
Are these anything more than fun side-projects for Ocean? Thankfully, the enjoyment he’s getting out of these tracks translates into quality. If our Ocean was in drought before Endless and Blonde, we’ve come full circle to a long wet season. Just as Frank suggests on Biking, things really do work in cycles.