Frank Ocean, Lady Gaga
Frank Ocean, Blond
The genius of Frank Ocean’s intimate second 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. Grade: A
Lady Gaga, Joanne
Is less always more? On her return to form, Lady Gaga hangs up the meat dress after reaching the epitome of self-parody a couple of years ago, when the icon sold Artpop like it was 2014’s Lemonade. You know how that turned out. Shortly thereafter, she reeled it in, which meant losing the beef frock to sing the Super Bowl’s National Anthem and actually wearing a pantsuit. It became clear that Gaga’s impending post-Fame Monster era would be without excess. (Just ask Tony Bennett, who crooned the Great American Songbook with her.) Named after her late aunt, Joanne is, sure enough, a songwriter’s album. Though the set’s songwriting—particularly “Hey Girl,” a squandered sisterhood collaboration with Florence Welch—doesn’t achieve the same strange intrigue as even her most inane pop scrawls (see: “Swine”), you don’t have to look further than punchy lead singles “Perfect Illusion,” “A-YO” and the belted heartbreaker “Million Reasons” to know Gaga’s back on (a very meatless) track. But who knew she’d recover with this no-frills, Southern-tinged vocal showcase? Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that “Grigio Girls”—with its spirited drunk-around-a-campfire vibe—sounds like a grrl-power anthem for a future Coyote Ugly remake. Even better is “Angel Down,” a poignant Black Lives Matter tribute written in honor of Trayvon Martin. “Where are our leaders?” she painfully pleads, enraged. Flaws and all, Joanne is certainly Gaga like we’ve never heard her before—meaning, it’s Mother Monster at her most human. Grade: B+
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).