Insular, unshowy and intriguing

Blond or Blonde - the masculine or feminine gender marker - that is the current kerfuffle over the title of Frank Ocean's proper second album, coming days after a visual album, Endless.

Named after a race-car company he owns, Blonde Racing, the album comes in two formats: two covers (one of him with crop hair dyed greenish blonde and one of him in full racing attire), as well as a physical version with a slightly different tracklisting, and an online edition, which is the one reviewed here.

The multiple alternatives frustrate and fascinate in equal measure, even more than his stunning shape- shifter of a debut, Channel Orange (2012).

The songs are insular and unshowy and, in their personal way, ceaselessly intriguing.

  • ALTERNATIVE R&B

  • BLOND

    Frank Ocean

    Boys Don't Cry

    4/5 stars

Lead-off single, Nikes, is downbeat and downtempo, as if dunk in alcohol. His voice, distorted via Varispeed and Auto-Tune, fleets between sounding like a robot attaining sentience, and a human grasping on to the last vestiges of humanity.

A critique of material hedonism and the trappings of fame, the track dives deep for your jugular and never lets you go. It veers from sexual healing to tributes to a trio of culturally significant figures: rappers A$AP Yams and Pimp C, who died following accidental drug overdoses; and Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager fatally shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer while visiting his father in 2012.

"RIP Trayvon, that n***a look just like me," he declares.

That constant negotiation between identities - racial and sexual - informs anti-ballads such as Ivy. "If I could see through walls, I could see you faking," he sings, over insistently strummed electric riffs. His voice can be bell-clear and pained, loud and defiant, screaming "I could drive all night" before ending in a strangely altered, hair-raising yawp at the end.

Indeed, for an album featuring a who's who in pop, R&B and hip-hop, it sounds completely singular. You could barely make out Beyonce emitting wordless harmonies in Pink + White, a ballad about a past dalliance; or Kendrick Lamar barking ad-lib in Skyline To, a song he co-produced and co-wrote, and which also features contributions from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood on some atonal guitar noodling.

Swedish rapper Yung Lean and American indie singer Austin Feinstein appear on Self Control, but it's Ocean's monologues that stick in your mind.

Played out over bare-knuckles guitar riffs, he opens up his heart about a passive-aggressive relationship: "I came to visit cause you see me like a UFO."

The song culminates in a strings-fuelled coda with him multi-tracked in a symphony of voices invaded by a pinball-machine F/X: "Know you got someone comin'/ You're spitting game, oh you got it."

Throughout, he flits between genres and genders, flipping, for instance, the masculine Norse myth of Siegfried, on its head. "I'm not brave!" he hollers in the song titled Siegfried, a jazzy, soulful ballad that blooms into a dreamy, orchestral doozie, cribbing lines from the late great indie iconoclast Elliott Smith's A Fond Farewell.

Instead of rhyme and reason, the songs subsist in their circuitry, sublimated in allusion and ellipsis. To understand them, switch off the lights, put on the headphones and immerse.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Insular, unshowy and intriguing'. Print Edition | Subscribe