Four years ago, I bought a used CD copy of Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson at a mom-and-pop record shop. On the ride home I was all, “I cannot wait to get home and load this into my iPod and blast ‘Jump Into the Fire’!” Shortly after I finished the thought, I was like, “Oh, wait, I can just put it in the CD player and blast it right now.” Then I spent the rest of the day wondering if that moment qualified as a senior one or just me being tragically hip.
I had a similar experience this weekend, when Frank Ocean’s long-teased new album Blond finally dropped. It was yet another high-profile work streaming somewhere exclusively—this time on Apple Music. In addition to having a premium Spotify account, I’d recently gone premium with Tidal, because I wanted to hear Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. So I ranted aloud, “I don’t need another streaming service in my life,” and then I remembered, Duh, I can just buy the thing for $10 on iTunes! I won’t have access to Endless, a video collection released in tandem with Blond. But since I still haven’t gotten around to watching either of Beyoncé’s “visual” albums, that’s just fine.
The belief that music is “free” in the digital age has always been bogus. Even in the late-’00s glory days of downloading, I was still paying monthly fees to shady file-sharing services to acquire more music than was humanly possible to digest. (Five-hundred dance hits of the ’90s? Sure. The complete Frank Zappa discography? Okay, just in case.) I’m currently paying at least $240 a year for uninterrupted access to Spotify and Tidal. Now Apple is sweet-talking me into raising that to $360, with more promises of exclusive content and access to “just about every song ever recorded.” That kind of money can buy real stuff—like, lots of records you’ll actually listen to. But is it worth forking all that over for music you’ll never really hear?
Having said that, I’ll take the Grumpy Old Man hat off and focus on the subject at hand: Blond, or Blonde, according to the album’s metadata. Like a friend told me this morning, “I want to believe in Frank Ocean.” Any eminent hip-hop singer who cops to an elastic sexuality on his debut, then writes a followup from the viewpoint of a teenage girl (did he just sing “eat some ’shrooms, maybe have a good cry”?), and enlists everyone from Jamie xx to Pharrell to help flesh it out demands attention. And indeed, Blond’s disregard for classic song structure and old-fashioned beats feels different and exciting, like hip-hop chamber pop. (Chamber-hop?) For all the N-words and F-bombs and pussy talk, Ocean’s on a serious Brian Wilson kick here.
But Wilson made a lot of bad music, too, and Blond suffers from what NPR’s Jason King calls “drifty songwriting that is too often formless and the pursuit of tone that is too often samey.” If some moments hint at a deeper synthesis of hip-hop and art-rock (“avant-soul,” as some call it), lots of others remind me of those bad, faux-jazz albums Joni Mitchell used to make. Even after repeated listening, I’m still not humming anything, and that makes me wonder where Blond will end up once the “event album” hype settles. After all, when a record gets packaged alongside “every song ever recorded,” it’s gotta work extra hard to keep our attention.