Frank Ocean, Blond. The genius of Frank Ocean’s intimate second full-length release is its scant emphasis on sexuality. Despite the attention given to Ocean’s queerness after his groundbreaking coming out in 2012, when the gifted Grammy-winner posted a heartfelt letter to Tumblr revealing his bent sexuality and affection for a special fella, Blond positions gayness as inconsequential to overall worth. Take, for instance, a casual mention of the gay bar you took me to. Understated lyrics related to his sexual fluidity evoke a brazen label defiance that new generations of queer rebels wear like a badge of honor. For that reason alone, the album is important and influential, as self-exploratory revelations draw upon nuanced recollections neatly tucked into serene R&B mid-tempos that enrapture you with their inviting sweetness.
Beyond his euphoric soundscapes is Ocean’s stream of consciousness, imparting cinematic and transient anecdotes that range from the loss of childhood virtue (remember how it was: climb trees, Michael Jackson, it all ends here…) to the complicated circumstances that adulthood summons. “Solo” sits atop a bed of organ accompaniment, throwing you into a divine state of hypnosis with the chorus’ inhale, inhale, there’s heaven, a reprise that couldn’t sound better unless you were hearing it in a hazy dream. “White Ferrari” is another respite. Here, Ocean falls into a quiet daydream, just a lover, their existential talk and an atmospheric blend of guitar and synths. The reverie, a classic among classics, concludes with indie virtuoso James Blake assuring, We’re so OK here; we’re doin’ fine.
On “Pink + White,” Beyoncé adorns the otherworldly outro with a gentle wind of whispery undertones, suppressing her presence to let Ocean have his moment. As Ocean reflects on scenes from his life throughout one of 2016’s greatest and most moving sets — his feelings and playbacks about sex, social media and those unforgettable car rides; the boyfriends, the girlfriends — it’s our own we’re seeing in the rearview mirror. Five stars.
Bon Iver, 22, A Million. Bon Iver’s latest is a rumination on the uncertainty of life and time and moments and other stuff and things. Beautifully cryptic things. One: a river that knows no bounds, that doesn’t heed a line… or stay behind, a beautiful allegory for perseverance. Another: some unidentified man whose guitar Vernon carries, galvanizing him to “go in.”
Vernon’s fragmented imagery seems to suggest a man at a crossroads. Him? Perhaps. On 22, A Million, he takes the road less traveled, casting his Grammy-winning style of Wisconsin-born folk — heard on his 2006 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago and, later, on its self-titled follow-up — into a bold, futuristic discord that progressively deconstructs as it enacts a meticulous structural subversion. The result is hypnotic, as the album opens like something out of an alternate dimension on the sax-kissed “22 (Over S∞∞n)” and then, on “715 – CR∑∑KS,” he works his sinewy bellow into static distortion that wreaks havoc on the most neo of neo-folk.
The turning point of this challenging narrative is “21 M◊◊N WATER,” when the clamor is distilled into a soothing cascade of New Age-y synths. The transition into the next track, “8 (Circle)” (imagine an ’80s Bonnie Raitt ballad in the year 2040), is perfection. It almost couldn’t get better, except it does. The album’s coda, “00000 Million,” elicits tears for reasons initially unclear, and then it hits you; it’s because of this hopeful assertion: The days have no numbers. Because, too, the moment is meditative, tender and, performed on a creaky piano, rendered beautifully. And because, frankly, Bon Iver’s best, most life-affirming work is right in front of you. Four-and-a-half stars.
— Chris Azzopardi