Frank Ocean // Endless (19 August, 2016)

There are drawbacks to fame. This comes as no surprise to anyone, especially in our now ever-connected reality. Celebrities of all sort are under constant surveillance, often to the point of mundanity: Kanye rants on Twitter about debt he’s incurred and I read a full article about it in The Daily Mail. Musicians are especially susceptible to this sort of scrutiny, with fans reaching out left and right wanting more music, fresh singles, a new album, and What’s taking so long?! Frank Ocean is the poster boy for this brand of ridicule. Fans anxiously waited for his followup to Channel ORANGE, a modern classic that launched him from relative obscurity to near-immediate fame. And they waited. And waited. There were hints dropped along the way, tiny clues inspected over and over, all of which seemed to be dead-ends. Ocean’s junior album, tentatively titled Boys Don’t Cry, was teased so many times that fans were resigned to the idea that he may never release it at all.

The minute it seemed all hope was lost, new music arrived. And it wasn’t even the album we’d been waiting for. Endless is Frank’s debut visual album, a 45-minute exercise in patience. It comes coupled with a fairly tumultuous backstory. Following it’s release, it was announced the album “fulfills Frank’s obligation to Def Jam and Universal.” Frank and Def Jam haven’t always been peachy (to put it nicely) and Frank was supposedly looking for a way out. Mirroring that relationship, Endless seems both a product of hard labor and frustration. Some songs feel complete, others merely demos, raw and formless.

Visually, the album is black-and-white and straightforward as can be; Frank builds a spiral staircase to nowhere, climbs nearly to the top, and the video cuts to the beginning, an endless cycle. I could pour over whatever metaphor Frank is trying to send about the endless hype that surrounded his impending release in previous years, that it’s all a cycle that will inevitably repeat a year or two from now when, again, there’s a very vocal demand for more music. But visually, it’s boring. That’s as plain as I can put it. Not much happens. The visuals of Endless require a four-word explanation: “Frank builds a staircase.” Musically, however, the album shines on it’s own, seeing Frank depart from the sunshine-pop of Channel ORANGE and turn inward, crafting an unfocused, self-reflective soundtrack.

Endless begins with a voice not belonging to Frank Ocean, but rather Wolfgang Tillmans, a German art photographer and occasional electronic artist. “Device Control” is a humorously meta introduction to the album, the first words being “With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos.” Then we hear Frank, sounding sweet as ever on “At Your Best (You Are Love),” a cover of both The Isley Brothers and—certainly more famously—Aaliyah. His ambient falsetto soars above delicate piano chords, Jonny Greenwood’s elegant strings softly playing underneath. “Comme Des Garçons” is another highlight, a minute-long track reminiscent Channel ORANGE‘s “Fertilizer,” a brief but unwasted interlude. Frank hurriedly sings the rapid-fire bridge, “Feelings come, feelings go/Feelings come, feelings go,” as quickly as feelings come and go. “Slide On Me,” arguably the album’s best track, rides a surprising and much-welcomed guitar line, as well as a perfectly simple beat from French DJ Sebastian. Frank’s lyrics grab one’s attention as he very carefully self-reflects, both on his trouble with Def Jam and the last four years in general: “I’m just all day runnin’ numbers/How the fuck you think I live?/Too many hands waitin’ for my downfall/They’re like ‘something’s gotta give.'”

On “Rushes”—an atmospheric ballad featuring the hazy strum of Alex G’s electric guitar and far-off backing vocals from Jazmine Sullivan—Frank navigates the ups-and-downs of romantic love. He sings “We’ve been here before/The first time is not the past time,” a thematic echo of Channel ORANGE‘s brighter, more accessible love songs. This is Frank Ocean as I’ve never heard him before. He sounds distant, almost detached from the song, and I mean this in the most literal sense. Alex G’s guitar is a slight, almost invisible attraction; Sullivan’s background vocals echo in and out of focus, powerful in one second and barely there the next. Frank himself seems to wander about the song, searching for something simple and direct to say, never quite managing to find it.

 Endless as a whole is a self-aware experiment, a visual mixtape not always yielding optimal results but often touching musical greatness in small, seemingly insignificant moments. What makes Frank Ocean not just an important musician but an important artist is his refusal to be forthcoming. He hides himself within his music, forcing the listener to make the first move. Endless feels in many ways like a trance, something that can play over and over and still retain it’s free, formless nature. Despite Endless not being the main attraction, there’s something Frank says on “Rushes” that has stuck with me since I first heard it last week: “I ain’t felt this way in years.”

Chris

Favorite tracks: “At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Comme Des Garçons,” “Slide On Me,” “Rushes,” “Rushes To,” “Higgs”

Kendrick Lamar // good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)

The heart and soul of good kid, m.A.A.d city is that of a film, so much so that Kendrick spells out this fact for us on the cover. It has an abundance of characters, both large and small, and moves in and out in waves of emotion, flashes of action and denouement, containing all the nuances of a well-imagined docudrama. Our protagonist, a young Kendrick Lamar, documents a day in his life in Compton, California. He and his friends spend their evenings driving around, smoking weed, drinking liquor, and gangbanging; they are no saints, but then again, they don’t pretend to be. Kendrick dramatizes this life in a way that neither condones nor condemns. What’s a poor 17-year old supposed to experience outside of his surroundings? What is the world outside of inner-city Compton? Kendrick asks us the question, but he never gives us the answer. After all, a film is not necessarily about the ending. It’s about the experience of watching it for the very first time.

good kid, m.A.A.d city begins with a prayer, a foreshadowing: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins.” This first line, heard from the distant, iffy audio of a tape recorder, introduces us to “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter.” Kendrick can’t help but share his excitement at the prospect of meeting Sherane,  saying as he drives “Seventeen, with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental/My motive was rather sinful/’What you trying to get into?'” His youthful energy segues into the reality of the situation, as the song suddenly halts and is interrupted by a voicemail from his parents. Kendrick took the minivan and said he’d be back in 15 minutes, but kids will be kids. This family thread becomes an important crux of the album, as Kendrick’s parents play supporting lead roles of sort (the voices of Kendrick’s parents are his actual parents, which adds a great deal of weight to everything they say). Already, in the album’s first three or so minutes, we’ve been introduced to four characters (Kendrick, Sherane, Mom, Dad) that will recur over the course of good kid, m.A.A.d city. At the end of “Sherane,” Kendrick’s father is pissed, telling his wife to “Cut my motherfuckin’ oldies back on, you killin’ my motherfuckin’ vibe,” which blasts us right into “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a track whose intro resembles much of Kendrick’s sultry jazz stylings on Section.80, comfortable in it’s own skin. Kendrick sings softly, “I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again/Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me, things I don’t understand/Sometimes I need to be alone.” It’s a matter-of-fact statement that is incredibly relatable. It’s a miracle how the album ties together as a whole, as though it were designed to satisfy both underground and mainstream rap fans equally. It’s a sought-after feat in the world of rap music, one nearly unattainable by even 2012’s standards. But Kendrick manages to tell his story and entertain you all in the same.

Another audio recording acts as the outro to “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick’s friend saying “I got a pack of blacks and a beats CD, get yo freestyles ready.” Cut to “Backseat Freestyle,” a romping track with an insane frontside bass and off-kilter clang. It’s pure fun, a young kid called K-Dot trying on his rapper hat, testing his limits and pushing past them, in turn rapping double-time and grovelling his voice uncomfortably low. “The Art of Peer Pressure” follows, Kendrick finally arriving at his narrative, carefully dictating he and his homies activities, setting the scene. The homies are out tonight to “complete the mission,” the mission being a robbery on a house they’ve “been camping out for like two months.” Kendrick was pressured to believe that these missions were a necessary part of growing up in Compton. “Money Trees,” one of the most straightforward rap songs on the album, features an excellent Jay Rock feature and a telling chorus: “It go Halle Berry or halleujah/Pick your poison tell me what you doin’/Everybody gon’ respect the shooter/But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” The song leads into another appearance from Mom and Dad, Mom again calling about the minivan which is yet to be returned. Kendrick’s dad, drunk, is having the time of his life, telling Mom “Girl I want your body, I want your body ’cause of that big ol’ fat ass,” which rockets straight into “Poetic Justice,” a slow, romantic track. So romantic, in fact, it features a famous Janet Jackson sample (“In the thunderin’ rain”) and Drake, whose presence doesn’t feel the slightest bit out of place in Kendrick’s universe. The song is not without weight, with Kendrick asking us directly, “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” It’s a question asked in earnest. I’m not sure he knows the answer himself.

If you split good kid, m.A.A.d city into two acts, “Poetic Justice” is the end of act one. The audio recording outro of “Poetic Justice” introduces us to a scarier side of Compton; Kendrick is jumped by two guys in hoodies, previously mentioned all the way back in the opener, “Sherane.” There’s a threatening lilt in a hooded man’s voice as he asks Kendrick where he’s from. This propels the album into “good kid,” Kendrick welcoming “mass hallucination, baby,” that being the cult of assimilation surrounding his gangbanging lifestyle. Kendrick steels himself, pledging to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible, by any means necessary. Easier said than done. “m.A.A.d city” hits you in the face from it’s opening seconds, blasting and booming a rousing hood beat, a nervous Kendrick detailing all of the horrors he’s witnessed in Compton. Narratively, it’s both fascinating and deeply skillful storytelling, with the track following the trauma of being jumped in “good kid,” and immediately segueing to a state of PTSD. About halfway through, the track flips, Compton legend MC Eiht telling Kendrick to “wake yo punk ass up.” Kendrick’s hesitant delivery is fitting. What he describes is his terrifying reality of life in inner-city Compton. His dad told him to get a job, but he got fired when his friends convinced him to stage a robbery. He doesn’t smoke weed anymore; the first blunt he ever smoked was laced with cocaine and had him “foaming at the mouth.” Kendrick’s final verse begs a question: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?” Kendrick uses this last verse to speak to all inner-city children, pleading that there is something beyond this, that there is indeed hope if you can grab onto it. His last words ring clearly: “I live inside the bell of the rough/Compton, U.S.A. made me an angel on angel dust.” Made Me an Angel on Angel Dust.

The outro of “m.A.A.d city” finds Kendrick once again with his homies. They tell him to just lay back, relax, and drink a little. This brings us to “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a reluctant and hazy party anthem. Kendrick begins by trying to rationalize exactly why people drink; relax, kill your sorrows, fit in. What on the surface appears to be a club anthem is actually an introspective study of alcoholism and it’s connection to peer pressure. Kendrick has said he purposefully contrasted that mainstream sound with this subject matter, and it’s extremely effective, especially considering the audio recording it ends with. Tough talk, gunshots, and death.

Kendrick’s story has finally come to a head, and the towering, mournful “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s opus. In it’s first movement, “Sing About Me,” Kendrick assumes the perspective of two different people. The first is positive, maintaining optimism; it’s the tragic and true story of Kendrick cradling the brother of a friend who had been shot, told from his friend’s perspective. He tells Kendrick, “I’m fortunate you believe in a dream/This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine,” leading to “I know exactly what happened/You ran outside when you heard my brother cry for help/Held him like a newborn baby and made him feel/Like everything was alright and a fight he tried to put up/But the type of bullet that stuck had went against his will.” His friend isn’t really sure where to go, he seems lost but hopeful. He says it’s sort of silly, gangbanging, how we “trip of off colors” and kill our own brothers and sisters for some small claim to fame or recognition.  It’s also all he knows. It’s “been with me forever.” But he’s grateful, truly, that Kendrick could be so kind and unerstanding: “And I love you cause you love my brother like you did/Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/And if I die before your album drop, I hope—.” Gunshots cut him off. The soft strum of the beat never falters. The second story is told from the perspective of Keisha’s sister; “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” vividly detailed the true story of a prostitute on Lamar’s Section.80. This introduces all of us to the idea that Kendrick being a realist is not always a positive. Keisha’s sister is also a prostitute, and explains that she doesn’t want his goddamn attention, she gets enough of that on her own. She’s hurt, and more obviously, angry that Kendrick would flesh out these truths of her very real sister for all the world to hear. She painfully spouts “And matter fact, did I mention that I physically feel great?/A doctor’s approval is a waste of time, I know I’m straight/I’ll probably live longer than you and never fade away/I’ll never fade away, I’ll never fade away, I know my fate.” Keisha’s sister proceeds to fade into silence, Kendrick wondering exactly what his purpose is as an artist. Is he meant to be a realist or a soothsayer? When does exposition become intrusion? Is the truth really worth all this? He has problems looking in the mirror. His stomach is so overwhelmed by the flap of butterfly wings he feels sick. “And I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death.” Who among us could blame him? Growing up on the streets of Compton, California leaves it’s fair share of scars. Kendrick keeps battling inward, asking “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?” And then the hook, “Promise that you will sing about me.”

The second part, “I’m Dying of Thirst,” finds Kendrick at the crucial crosswords the album has been building to. “Tired of running, tired of hunting/My own kind, but retiring nothing” he desperately sings. Kendrick is finished taking his life for granted. He seeks repentance, to be washed in the blood of Jesus, for his thirst to finally be quenched. He wants to learn what it means to be whole: “What are we doing? Who are we fooling?/Hell is hot, fire is proven/To burn for eternity, return of the student/That never learned how to live righteous but how to shoot it.” A woman notices Kendrick and his homies, who are losing it after one of their own was gunned down only moments earlier. She approaches, and tells the young men that they’re indeed dying of thirst, and only one thing can quench their thirst: water. Holy water. We are transported to the beginning of good kid, m.A.A.d city. They pray: “”Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins…”

This is truly the spirit of good kid, m.A.A.d city, the search for repentance, reconciliation, and peace. “Real” finds Kendrick at peace with his place as an artist, one who refuses to embellish, one who sees truth not as a formality but as a responsibility. Mom and Dad come back at the end, in the album’s most touching moments. They take turns on Kendrick’s voicemail:

Dad: “Sorry to hear what happen to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did homie. Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Realness is responsibility, realness is taking care of your motherfucking family, realness is God. Alright that’s all I wanted to tell you, just make sure you call us back when you get this message. Here go your mom.”

Mom: “… I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city… And I love you, Kendrick.”

good kid, m.A.A.d city holds a very special place in my heart. It’s a beautiful, honest, painful, cinematic, and graceful work of art. Like the best films, it finds a way to touch and entertain. Wounds are healed, bridges built, people reborn. It’s the idea that you can reinvent. You too can rise from the ashes of your past self and come out on the other side new, whole, peaceful. Flowers can bloom, even in dark rooms.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice,” “good kid,” “m.A.A.d city,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Real”

Arcade Fire // Funeral (2004)

And thus, 21st century art-rock was solidified. Funeral is an interesting and emotional amalgam. It’s title stems from the untimely deaths of numerous family members that preceded it’s release. It was an instant modern classic, combining art-rock and baroque pop themes in an album wholly focused on the tedium and suffering of life in the current century. There’s a cloud hanging over Funeral and there always will be. It is at once euphoric and melancholy,  free of definable concept or conceit. An album born from death and illuminated by life.

Funeral begins what I like to describe as the “Power 3” of Arcade Fire listening (followed by 2010’s The Suburbs and 2013’s Reflektor). Win Butler, lead vocalist and songwriter, has his hands full with this one. Or rather, filled his own hands. People come and go throughout, but the themes remain air-tight, hellbent on finding some sort of answer to eternal questions. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” is an operatic opening, flowing gently on and on, reaching it’s climax well after it was deserved. Butler chimes, “And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood/And if my parents are crying/Then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours/Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours.” Thus begins this ubiquitous theme of feeling both isolated and connected. This is continued in three more iterations of “Neighborhood,” which carry the bulk of the album’s first act. “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” is an allegory unto itself, packed with symbolism I can’t quite define, and neither can most. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”—my personal favorite of the four—rides a strumming lead guitar and uplifting chimes, led by Butler’s aching, breathless voice. It’s a stadium song, one that refuses to halt and stop: “I went out into the night/I went out to pick a fight with anyone/Light a candle for the kids/Jesus Christ don’t keep it hid!” Those lyrics encompass a certain kind of white suburban sentiment, that things are kept hush-hush, unspoken of, quietly locked behind closed doors. “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)” is the denouement, the musical reprieve of the first three movements. Strings balance gently with acoustic guitar, Butler’s distinct voice both whispered and piercing, the song moves along artfully, gracefully. He sings: “It’s not a lover I want no more/and it’s not heaven I’m pining for/but there’s some spirit I used to know/that’s been drowned out by the radio.” That last measure embodies these movements; one realizes Butler is not merely selling metaphors but in fact speaking about music itself, that too many musicians have in fact lost their idea of art and it’s intangible rewards.

The second half of the album is not as streamlined, but just as structured. “Crown of Love” demonstrates that while Funeral may be bleak, it is never without positivity. In fact, it exudes positivity; it burns slowly as bonfire and begs for you to dance to it’s sorrow. “Wake Up,” a song that would spend a decade destined for coming-of-age movie trailers, is brilliant, uplifting, and infectious. There’s something innocent about the song, with Butler singing “Now that I’m older/My heart’s colder/And I can see that it’s a lie” so honestly it hurts. The chorus is as simple as it gets, a successive series of Oh’s backed by an unrepentant battalion of guitar, cymbal-ping, and indistinguishable noise—a chorus so messy and free it actually feels like a relief, like youth itself. Then we wake. Near the end, “Wake Up” changes, living up to it’s promise. The reflective Oh’s are left behind in favor of short and sweet vocalizations sung under a bright, hopping piano line. Butler speaks (not sings) directly to us, proclaiming “You better look down below,” which can be interpreted as either a heads up or a wink-wink moment. It’s a fantastically economical use of time.

From it’s first guitar strums, “Haiti” sounds simple enough. Classic indie-rock masquerading as folk, a simple rhythm aided by drum and the occasional intrusion of some electronic, otherworldly element. That’s fine enough, as the first two minutes of the song play out as expected. Then we’re left without the lyrics. Régine Chassagne (multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and Win Butler’s wife) offers up a soft, unaffected voice which subsides and only sound remains, somewhere between a hum and a drone, little flares of sound sparking in and out. For a second, Chassagne inhales quickly as though she’s going to begin again, only to be cut off by the guitar. It’s amazing to listen to this song, recorded in 2003, with the full knowledge I have of the Haitian earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. The song speaks numbers to that context, that so much was said and then some. Sometimes it’s just as well if we close our own mouths, open our ears, and listen to others.

“Rebellion (Lies)” ignites from the tail-end of “Haiti,” a song so lyrically dense I struggle to find something insightful to say. Butler begins by toying with ideological profundity, stating “Sleeping is giving in/No matter what the time is.” It’s a headache of a metaphor, the meaning changing from person to person. The lies we tell ourselves continue, with Butler angrily growling “Come on hide your lovers/Underneath the covers,” which is either an immensely personal recollection from his past or a tried-and-true universal sentiment. Having experienced the rollercoaster that was the first eight songs, I’m inclined to side with the latter. Funeral is not without it’s melancholy, but there’s something joyous in not only knowing the truth but having the courage to speak it freely.

Arcade Fire is concerned more with art than music. This is my personal opinion of course. Listening to their music, their albums as a whole, it becomes evident that they view the two, art and music, as one in the same. Funeral is an elegy for the old you, the person you chose to leave behind when, say, you first experienced death. Or failure. Or when you felt the most alive, those conscious breaths you take upon waking. Or the first time sadness crept into your heart, and the invincible feeling when you fought it back, all bloody knuckles and unshed tears. This is a funeral for your old self. There is infinite joy in that.

 

Chris

Favorite Tracks: “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Wake Up,” “Rebellion (Lies)”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Danny Brown // “When It Rain” (2016)

Never has Danny Brown’s frantic energy felt so cathartic. Old big goodbye to the old Danny Brown, whose best work was done when he was either sulking or violently high. The disjointed, unfocused “When It Rain” highlights the absolute best Brown has to offer, from the grimy electronica of the beat to lyrics that feel almost improvisational, off-the-cuff in the best way possible.

The song arrived coupled with one of the most hypnotic and crazy music videos in recent memory. The production is no less than incredible. Most obvious, I’m at a loss to find another rapper than can challenge Danny Brown’s lyrical flow. “When It Rain” capitalizes on even the most minute details, a revelation. It’s kind of crazy to behold.