Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Frank Ocean

  • Nostalgia, Ultra [free download, 2011] A
  • The Lonny Breaux Collection [free download, 2011] **
  • Channel Orange [Def Jam, 2012] A-
  • Blond/Blonde [self-released, 2016] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Nostalgia, Ultra [free download, 2011]
A high point many admirers never mention sets the tone--the lead "Strawberry Swing," where the alienated young r&b pro rewrites the sappy Coldplay single without underplaying its lyricism or, as promised, its nostalgia. "I've loved the good times here" is a sendoff worthy of the "dying world" Ocean calls home. His romantic laments are models of texture, respect, and profound loss, their beats subtle, seductive, weird, and seized like time whether he's deploying "songs for women" that are soon trumped by Drake's, not feeling a porn-moonlighting dental student and her "novacaine," or annulling a courthouse wedding solemnized just before his bride turned in her term paper on hijab. Swagga his Odd Future crew: "It's Smooth Ass Music About Bitches, Relationships And Being A Rich Young Nigga . . . But In A Swagged Out Way." Lord he's so over their heads. A

The Lonny Breaux Collection [free download, 2011]
Alienated love songs just barely set apart by their specifics ("When I'm Done," "Scared of Beautiful") **

Channel Orange [Def Jam, 2012]
One, Nostalgia, Ultra wasn't perfect. Two, neither is this, but in a different way. There's no song here as astonishing as "Strawberry Swing," "Novacane," or "American Wedding"--two of which, you will note, exploit Other People's Music (not to mention the Other Man's Music), and all of which inhabit a narrative world simultaneously richer and more ordinary than the haut-monde demimonde of most of these songs. But the musical craft on this almost sampleless album is so even-keeled that there's no song here as forgettable as "There Will Be Tears" or "Dust" either. You could speculate that when he's the sole composer Ocean resists making a show of himself--resists the dope hook, the smart tempo, the transcendent falsetto itself. And just as his music is about control, he never promotes a subject matter I believe fascinates him in a cautionary way, as the assigned fate of the r&b elite. Definitely his official debut is about the demimonde, not of it. And definitely the verbal content rules. For a musical prodigy to be a writer first is a mitzvah. But that doesn't mean we have to share his fascinations. A-

Blond/Blonde [self-released, 2016]
This indifferent melodist's coup d'art only comes into its own when he brings the noise--especially as of the clamorous "Nights," which together with the 100-mph Andre 3000 rap and the rehearsal-tuneup chorale that follow add up to the only nine minutes on his stairway to nowhere that I'd call thrilling as well as admirable. Sometimes it's deeply admirable, true, like for instance the candidly awkward "Good Guy," the telling "Facebook Story" tale, and Ocean's determination to rely on the musical authority of his expressive and capable but unathletic voice--I love the way "Good Guy" Auto-Tunes down. As on Channel Orange, however, his angst is a luxury of leisure--his wealth, hold the fame. Because some of his interpersonals could happen to anyone, his fans relate, and good for him. But most are specific to his social status. Why doesn't he whine more about the travails of stardom? Because he knows damn well how much he enjoys the freedom it affords him. B+