Frank Ocean's Candidness and the Ambitious Blood Orange: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
The Dean sits down with some of the most personal releases of the year: Frank Ocean's 'Blond(e)' and Blood Orange's 'Freetown Sound.'
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Blood Orange: Freetown Sound (Domino)
Don't let the spoken-word samples that signify Dev Hynes's intellectual ambitions distract you from the smartest stuff here—namely, the choruses that beckon you through them. Then home in on the extraordinary run of women singers who enliven and intensify his songs as past collaborators have not: Empress Of, Carly Rae Jepsen, Zuri Marley, Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, Kelsey Lu, BEA1991, Ava Raiin. And dig how casually he varies his falsetto with bass-baritone chant-raps and juices his keyboards with percussion. The ambitions themselves could be clearer—why should "Hands Up" be so much more explicit about police violence than "Squash Squash" is about lives lost to addiction? But credit Hynes with connecting his romantic instability to a personal insecurity that in turn connects to what the larger society makes of his blackness and queerness—and for having the consciousness to insist that his blackness is rooted in Africa, and not just because his father was born there. A MINUS
Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domino)
Four arresting pieces of intelligent funk-lite set up six merely accomplished pieces of intelligent funk-lite before Dev Hynes's virtuosity saves the day. The transvestite subway trip "Uncle ACE" turns focus track when its distressed harmonics bloom into a saxish finale-turned-fade, with David Longstreth's pained shtick right after augmenting the mood. But despite the added charge of two surprise raps whose ordinary male sexism and striving accentuate Hynes's doomed sweetness, too much vocal space is tendered the pretty, vacant Samantha Urbani. Only when the auteur's piano saturates the climactic "Time Will Tell" does his vision of romance in perpetual suspended animation regain the poignancy he's so convinced it's worth. B PLUS
Frank Ocean: Blond/Blonde (self-released)
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 PLUS
Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.