All Hail Frank Ocean, Pop Musician
Blonde: great album! One of last year’s absolute best. Will undoubtedly stand the test of time. Love it. Can’t get enough of it. I’ve never fully understood how some records reveal new glories with each passing listen — it’s all there the first time you hear it, after all, unless we’re talking about “a living breathing changing creative expression” like The Life Of Pablo — but Blonde does exactly that. It’s always getting better. It’s a true work of art.
It is also pop music of a sort, but not the pop music most of us were expecting. Ocean’s latest opus is dense and insular and sometimes resembles indie rock more closely than the artful R&B he made his name on — though given Ocean’s famously non-binary approach to almost everything in life, to triangulate his music’s genre is to miss the point. Even “Nikes,” the project’s ostensible single, was abstract enough that our own Tom Breihan decried it as “barely a song.” Put simply, Blonde is the kind of pop that doesn’t really pop that much; rather than appeal to your basic instincts, it draws you into Ocean’s world on his own terms. Endless, the drowsy visual mixtape he released two days before Blonde, is even more oblique.
In tandem, these projects positioned Ocean as the kind of Serious Artiste who is not interested in releasing summer jams anymore. Not that summer jams were ever exactly his specialty: Most of the best-known tracks from his career-making 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and legend-sealing 2012 debut album Channel Orange were downcast and dreary in spite of their extreme catchiness, often finding Ocean lost in a cloud of drugs and/or depression. “Novacane,” “Swim Good,” “Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion” — all exceptional pop songs, but not exactly beach party music. Still, the likes of “Songs For Women” and “Lovecrimes” and “Pyramids” and “Lost” — not to mention his work writing for Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, and Brandy — suggested Ocean had a wealth of full-fledged pop hits brimming within him. It was just a matter of letting them out.
In 2017, he’s been letting them out. It’s glorious. Every few weeks a new episode of his Beats 1 show blonded Radio appears, each one containing an infectious new single. Not every one of them is an outright pop song, but they all find him adapting his unique sensibility to the lingua franca of modern radio. Most feature guest verses from the kinds of superstar rappers who seem to rear their heads on every major release: Migos, Travis Scott, Young Thug. All of them have, uh, drums. With all due respect to Blonde the world is better when this kind of Frank Ocean song is allowed to exist, too.
First, in the waning weeks of winter, came a burst of sunshine. “Slide,” Ocean’s improbable disco-funk collaboration with Calvin Harris and Migos, was a miracle, a revelation, a genuine surprise — not just that it existed but that it surpassed my every expectation, so bright and airy and carefree and right. Rarely have three wildly different artists so seamlessly aligned their aesthetics. “Slide” may not turn out to be the Song Of The Summer, statistically speaking — bizarrely, it never charted higher than #34, and Harris seems to have already moved on — but it’s already my personal Song Of The Summer and we haven’t even hit May yet. I’ve listened to it more than any other track this year by a wide margin.
A few weeks later he returned with “Chanel,” his first proper solo track of the year. An ode to fluidity that sounds like piano chords reflected off a mirror, it’s perhaps objectively better than “Slide” — just as hooky but immersed in Ocean’s moody headspace and saturated with ideas. In a deeply insightful writeup, our Peter Helman noted, “it’s another snapshot of Ocean’s young, restless mind, folding everything from sexuality to celebrity to online fan communities into its shuffling beat and swirling piano. The only throughline is Ocean himself — and that voice, a magical instrument that can turn a simple turn of phrase into an unforgettable mantra.”
Then came “Biking,” a casual flex that brings together two of Ocean’s earliest benefactors, Jay Z and Tyler, The Creator. (In 2017, putting Jay Z on your song is a pop move by default.) Then “Lens,” last weekend’s post-808s And Heartbreak Rhodes piano swoon, in “two versions,” one of them featuring the ubiquitous Travis Scott. Then, barely two days later, a remix of Endless track “Slide On Me” bolstered by the presence of Young Thug, a fellow iconoclast who has chosen to operate deeper within the mainstream than Ocean.
Again, these are not all honest-to-God pop moves on par with “Slide,” but they converse with the mainstream in a way Blonde and Endless rarely bothered to. Even the fact that they’re rolling out so soon after Ocean’s last major statement suggests an adaptation to the constant demand for new music in the modern pop landscape, particularly a hip-hop universe where oversharing has become the norm and many stars release multiple full-length projects per year. These songs could all believably thrive in a rap and R&B radio context shaped by Drake’s genre-agnostic cloud of discontent. I’m still not sure I believe they’re real.
Maybe it’s obvious in hindsight that someone who zigs and zags as capriciously as Ocean would choose this moment to go pop on us, after he conditioned us not to expect it by disappearing for years and returning with the most challenging material of his career. But I certainly wasn’t expecting to be blessed with so much new Frank Ocean music this year, much less such accessible Frank Ocean music. I don’t know whether these tracks are old outtakes or new loosies or even the buildup to another album, but whatever they are, they’re beautiful. And considering there’s no telling when he might decide to turn the faucet off and go back to his reclusive, globetrotting ways, I’m going to savor every moment of the strange new reality in which Ocean slides on so many of his nights like this.
All hail King Kendrick Lamar! Kung Fu Kenny landed the year’s biggest album debut with DAMN., tallying 603,000 equivalent units and 353,000 in traditional album scales to secure his third career #1. He joins Drake and Future as the only artists with #1 albums in 2015, 2016, and 2017. He also makes sure the Chainsmokers — whose Memories… Do Not Open debuted at #1 last week when I was out on paternity leave — only enjoy the top spot for a single week.
Up next is John Mayer, whose The Search For Everything notched a highly respectable 132,000 units and 120,000 sales to debut at #2. That bumps upper-echelon mainstays Drake and Ed Sheeran to #3 and #4 respectively, followed by the Chainsmokers at #5. The rest of the top 10: Moana, Bruno Mars, Future, Beauty And The Beast, and the #10-debuting Fate Of The Furious soundtrack.
As we segue to the singles chart, Kendrick remains the star. Buoyed by lots of DAMN. album streams and the continued popularity of its music video, “HUMBLE.” rises to #1 in its third week on the Hot 100, unseating Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” after 12 nonconsecutive weeks on top. It’s K-Dot’s first #1 song as a lead artist, following his turn as a guest on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” Kendrick also debuts “DNA.” at #4, making him the first artist since the Chainsmokers to have two songs in the top 5.
Speaking of the Chainsmokers, their Coldplay collab “Something Just Like This” falls to #8 this week. It’s their only remaining top-10 hit after scoring three at the same time earlier this year, but it gives them 51 straight weeks with a song in the top 10, tying Drake for second all-time. Back up near the top of the chart, “Shape Of You” slides to #2, followed by Bruno Mars’ irrepressible “That’s What I Like” at #3.
Just below #4 “DNA.” comes Future’s “Mask Off,” rising to a new #5 peak largely on the strength of the #MaskOffChallenge. When it hit #7 last week, it became Future’s first ever top-10 single. Up next is Kyle and Lil Yachty’s “iSpy,” steady at #6, which earlier peaked at #4 and is both artists’ highest-charting single. Down at #10 is “XO TOUR Llif3,” which became Lil Uzi Vert’s highest-charting single as a lead artist when it rose to #8 last week (though he went to #1 with his feature on Migos’ “Bad And Boujee). That one was powered by a viral hashtag too. So streaming, meme-ing, and stylistic evolution continue to convert rap music into pop music.
The rest of the top 10 comprises two new entries: Zedd and Alessia Cara’s “Stay” rises to #7, becoming the third top-10 hit for each artist and ending a one-week absence of women in the top 10. And Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” shoots all the way up from #48 to #9 thanks to a new remix and video featuring Justin Bieber. Per Billboard, it’s the first primarily Spanish-language song in the top 10 since Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” went to #1 in 1996.
Fall Out Boy – “Young And Menace”
JFC, FOB. I refer you to Pranav Trewn for further commentary on this monstrosity.
Lady Gaga – “The Cure”
Taking a week off writing this column means I didn’t get to address the new Gaga track last week, so here it is now. It’s the return to full-fledged pop music I was hoping Joanne would be, but it doesn’t jump out at you like I want a Lady Gaga song to jump out at me — like, maybe it’s better to have slightly grating songs that are unmistakably Gaga’s handiwork rather than vaguely pleasing anonymous pop songs?
Brad Paisley – “Drive Of Shame” (Feat. Mick Jagger)
If you’re not much of a country fan, you probably know Paisley as the man behind “Accidental Racist” or perhaps as a Nationwide Insurance pitchman, but for reasons explained here he’s one of the most reliable hit-makers in Nashville. And now he has a song with Mick Jagger that is extremely competent. Stick around for the guitar solo!
Charlie Puth – “Attention”
Charlie Puth has been this column’s nemesis for nearly two years, but I have to hand it to him: This new single is some delightfully shadowy lite-funk. I don’t even know who he is anymore. I don’t even know who I am anymore!
Paramore – “Hard Times”
Paramore’s ’80s pop revival: It ain’t “Ain’t It Fun,” but it’s fun, ain’t it?
And if that version of “Hard Times” is not for you, maybe this one is?
NEWS IN BRIEF
- In a new Vogue cover story Katy Perry speaks about her political views: “I think you have to stand for something, and if you’re not standing for anything you’re really just serving yourself, period, end of story.” [Vogue]
- Perry also teased tomorrow’s release of her new Migos collaboration “Bon Appétit” by emailing a recipe for cherry pie to her fanclub members. [Idolator]
- Aaaaand Perry bought a $19M mansion in Beverly Hills. [TMZ]
- Taylor Swift was named Sexiest Entertainer in Victoria’s Secret 2017 What Is Sexy list. [Victoria’s Secret]
- Swift also praised Ed Sheeran’s “ever-present armor of enthusiasm” in Time’s 100 Most Influential People essay. [Time]
- Harry Styles will be on The Late Late Show for a whole week. [YouTube]
- Shania Twain will join The Voice as a Top 12 key advisor. [Twitter]
- J. Cole teased a new song during his HBO documentary 4 Your Eyez Only. [Twitter]
- Rihanna rocked a Gucci diamond bodysuit at Coachella. [Billboard]
- Frozen The Musical announced its lead Broadway cast. [Broadway]
- Also, Frozen 2 is coming 11/27/19! [Twitter]
- Police are investigating an incident at a Tampa nightclub where a photographer said he was sucker punched by Chris Brown. [WaPo]
- Drake’s house was reportedly burglarized by a fan who stole several … beverages. [TMZ]
- In a new Rolling Stone cover story by Cameron Crowe, Harry Styles speaks about those songs Taylor Swift wrote about him. [Rolling Stone]
- Lady Gaga and Prince William chatted via FaceTime about Gaga’s mental health struggles in a spot for the Prince’s charity Heads Together. [USA Today]
- Here’s Instagram comedienne Lele Pons talking about Justin Bieber, an investor in her manager’s company: “He tries to be normal. Sometimes he tries to talk, but he doesn’t know how to talk to you. He’s like, ‘I like your skirt.’ You know? Not really a conversation, but he tries.” [NY Mag]
- Kid Rock is engaged. [Freep]
- Zedd announced a new headphones line Double Zero. [EDM Tunes]
- Dua Lipa shared the tracklist for her debut album. [Twitter]
- Lil Yachty announced the details of his debut album Teenage Emotions out 5/26. It features Migos, Diplo, YG & Kamaiyah, Stefflon Don, Evander Griim, Grace, and Sonyae Elise. [XXL]
- Brad Paisley released a new album Love And War faturing Mick Jagger, John Fogerty, Timbaland, and others. [Tennesseean]
- Machine Gun Kelly left the stage of his South Florida show during “Bad Things” due to severe chest pain. Apparently he had been injured (“punched in the chest 65 times”) while filming the movie Captive State the previous day. [TMZ]
- “Jay Z once wired money to Mr. Michael in an attempt to invest even more in Uber,” writes The New York Times in an exposé of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s shady growth strategies. “Mr. Michael and Mr. Kalanick, giddy at rebuffing a celebrity, wired some of the money back, saying they already had too many interested investors.” [NYT]
- Robin Thicke will honor his mother on VH1’s second annual Mother’s Day special Dear Mama: An Event To Honor Moms. [Billboard]
- Foster The People are counting down to something. [Twitter]
- Miley Cyrus has an uncredited voice role as Mainframe in a Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 post-credits scene. [Buzzfeed]
- The New York Times profiled Lana Del Rey’s sister. [NYT]
- Here’s the trailer for the Dirty Dancing remake with Abigail Breslin. [YouTube]
- Beyoncé announced a “Formation Scholars” scholarship program. [Beyoncé]
- Anderson .Paak, Nile Rodgers, Disclosure, and Bruno Mars hit the studio together. [Pitchfork]
- Kidz Bop announced a new tour with new kidz. [Yahoo]
- In a newly filed “Blurred Lines” appeal brief, attorneys for Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke say that “a ‘groove’ or ‘feeling’ cannot be copyrighted, and inspiration is not copying.” [THR]
- Pharrell also became the first man to star in a Chanel bag campaign. [YouTube]
- Here’s a preview of Kygo and Ellie Goulding’s “First Time,” out tomorrow. [Twitter]
- Best.Cover.Ever. is a new talent competition series coming to YouTube, produced by Ryan Seacrest and featuring Ludacris, Demi Lovato, Backstreet Boys, and Jason Derulo. [People]
- Hailee Steinfeld, Sofia Carson, and Kelsea Ballerini will sing a Britney Spears medley at the Radio Disney Music Awards. [Billboard]
- And finally, Steinfeld’s new single “Most Girls” drops tomorrow. [Headline Planet]