Frank Ocean – Blonde


I’m not exactly sure why, but I feel like Blonde, Frank Ocean’s long-awaited third record, could go away at any moment. Lemme just check real quick … yes, it’s still there.

There’s something about Blonde (née Boys Don’t Cry) that feels even more elusive than 2016’s other long-awaited splashes. It’s partly because of how much we’ve been teased – first it was a July 2015 release date, then July 2016, then 8/5 – but Avalanches fans scoff at an album merely 13 months overdue. Maybe it’s the last-second name change? That’s nothing compared to Kanye’s indecision. No, I think it’s because of the nature of Frank’s music itself.

2012’s channelORANGE was an emotional experience, prefaced by the artist’s moving Tumblr post about a man he fell in love with. It was one gleaming anthem after another about the triumphs and challenges of being honest with yourself. Ocean’s voice became the voice that told us it was OK to feel lost, OK to pour out our feelings to a stranger, OK to be hopelessly in love, thinking about forever. Four years is a long time to wait to hear that voice again.

And on the opening track and debut single, “Nikes,” Ocean toys with our separation anxiety. A bed of dreamy synths begs him to break out that falsetto, but instead Ocean pitch-alters his voice to unrecognizable lows. That warmth and vulnerability is stunted, fighting to stay pure through whirlwinds of materialism and drugs. “Demons try to body jump,” he warns, setting a bleak tone of self-preservation that is at least one of the prevailing themes of this overtly inscrutable record.

It’s awfully hard to analyze what Blonde actually means after a few listens. Ocean does not give us the benefit of a roadmap this time around; he’s far less interested in clear narratives – and for that matter, beats, hooks and choruses. The most immediately arresting tracks on the album are as stripped down as a folk song. A lone keyboard run symbolizes the thin line between heaven and hell on a song called “Solo.” “Godspeed” is in a similar boat, giving Ocean nothing more than some subdued gospel organ and scattered backup vocals to work with. “Self Control” wrings every drop of pathos out of a stranded, Tracy Chapman-ish electric guitar line. All of these songs are gorgeous, their messages of hope through loneliness, of integrity through selflessness, ringing all the deeper for how starkly they’re delivered. By following a richly layered, widely celebrated masterpiece with a raw singer/songwriter album that’s sure to divide his audience, Ocean has pulled a reverse Joni Mitchell.

It’s no coincidence that my favorite tracks are the ones where the production clears the way to let Frank flat-out sing. His voice remains his genius. While it’s probably going to be rewarding to parse the Othello and Little Mermaid references of “Nikes,” Ocean is still better at letters than poems. “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight,” he proclaims in “Self Control,” his yearning laid bare, full-throated and utterly heartbreaking. The more I feel the impact of moments like these, the less I worry that they’re somehow going to be stolen from me.

Ocean struggles a bit with the connective tissue tracks, those little 1-2 minute breaks that helped make channelORANGE such a perfectly sequenced experience. “Good Guy” dampens the poignant heartache of its lyrics with tossed-off tape-recorder fidelity. The French DJ Sebastian wastes our time with a story about a girlfriend getting upset because he wouldn’t friend her on Facebook (she’s right to be suspicious, dude). A voicemail from Ocean’s mom about being yourself is so on the nose, we may have to call an ambulance. When an album has been clearly obsessed over for as long as Blonde has, you’ve gotta wonder how these snippets still made the cut.

So, at first blush, this is not an instantly accessible, world-conquering work of art like its predecessor. It’s a messier, less sonically assured, more challenging experience. It’s entirely possible that I will like it less once the joy of hearing his voice again wears off.

But I don’t think so. The more I listen, the more I see Blonde as a bold, unfettered document of an artist beloved for his honesty, struggling with the trappings and temptations of fame. Struggling so much that I almost worry about him. “I want to see Nirvana / but don’t want to die,” he sings on “Nights.” It’s the first of two mentions of the band on this album“Close to You” is an interpolative cover of The Carpenters’ classic, with new lyrics but the same melody. “Why am I preaching / To this choir, to this atheist,” he sings through the trappings of AutoTune. Then, on the solemn, introspective “Siegfried,” he sings the chorus from Elliott Smith’s “A Fond Farewell.” Here are callbacks to three artists, all destroyed by the burdens of societal pressure and their own personal demons. On some level, Frank Ocean feels a connection with them. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws.

OK, I feel better. Blonde has grabbed me. It’s here to stay.

The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016

Is there anything better than crankin’ some rockin’ tunes while cruisin’? Break out your drivin’ gloves and coastin’ shades, cuz I’m about to press your boogie-woogie button with The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016. Crank it loud. Crank it far. Crank it like a dude with a ‘tude who makes the squares unglued.



Kamaiyah – “Out the Bottle”
Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware. The I-just-don’t-give-a-fuck anthem of the year.



Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”
The year’s most ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.



The Monkees – “You Bring the Summer”
This lilting highlight of the superb Monkees reunion disc Good Times! is brimming with love’s wide-eyed optimism, making a chips-and-dip picnic sound like a trip to Paris.



Kvelertak – “1985”
A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by a sandpaper-throated emissary from Satan.



Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”
Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.



Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”
Full of audacious swagger and undeniable craftsmanship, this is the lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.



Sturgill Simpson – “Keep it Between the Lines”
Sturg goes full Stax on this groovy homage to fatherly advice, full of stabbing low-register horns and a loose falsetto refrain of “don’t sweat the small stuff.”



2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”
Two rap vets going in like there’s nothing to lose.



Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – “Work From Home”
When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office during summer doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.


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William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”
An offering to the sun god, in the form of an achingly beautiful country guitar instrumental.



Kanye West ft. Chris Brown – “Waves”
Effervescent, soulful and hopeful, “Waves” feels like the old Kanye. In the thorny, paranoid sprawl of The Life of Pablo, it’s a striking breath of fresh air.



Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”
If you think your summer is going to shit, the indefatigable Iggy is here to remind you that you’re right around the corner from sweet relief.


Prince (1958-2016)


Many of my formative years were spent going to a small Catholic elementary school. For most of my time there, I was all in – obsessed with stories of the saints; eager to partake in the sacraments; honored to be an altar boy. And as a quiet kid who bit his nails, I was totally down with the meek inheriting the earth.

Eventually, I started to see the holes in my teachers’ arguments. Why were there no dinosaurs in the Bible? “It’s a mystery,” they’d say. How could God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit be the same person? “It’s a mystery.” Why don’t animals go to heaven? “Because they weren’t baptized or something. Now shut up.”

But it wasn’t until later in life that I realized how much that experience shaped me, especially when it came to sex. In second grade, when we were prepping for our first confession, we were told that any sexual thought was a sin, literally an “impure thought.” We needed to confess them all to make sure our souls were “clean.” I took that teaching to heart. Shame and physical desire were inextricably linked. At least until I got older, met the girl who would become my wife, and started listening to Prince.

Prince died yesterday. He was 57. It’s impossible to properly explain his influence on the world as an artist, sex symbol, fashion icon and restless creative spirit. Since his debut album in 1978, he married funk with synth-pop, hard rock and slow-jam R&B, forging a signature sound whose effect on the pop landscape has been seismic. The depth of his talent was staggering – one of the most expressive guitarists of all time (and merely great at several other instruments); a coy, elastic vocalist with a pitch perfect falsetto; an innovative producer and arranger; a tireless and explosive performer. When a major artist gets stylistically ambitious, chances are they’re trying to sound like Prince – see Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Andre 3000’s The Love Below, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. There’s a long list of brilliant artists, like Miguel and Janelle Monae, who would not exist without him. His love songs were come-ons, and vice versa. He luxuriated in pleasure, in a way that felt rebellious, even political. Take this line from my favorite Prince album, Controversy – if he were a corporation, it’d be his mission statement: “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there were no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” Prince didn’t lay you down by the fire, he was the fire.

I picked up Purple Rain during a time when I was driving a lot – several 90-minute trips a week to be with my impossibly gorgeous girlfriend. I made a questionable investment in a Dodge Neon, 100% because it could get me to her. I craved her more each day (a phenomenon that’s never stopped). She washed away any vestige of those old “impure thoughts” lessons, fully exposing them as propaganda. And Prince was the soundtrack to this awakening. Take the gospel-tinged opening salvo of “Let’s Go Crazy”:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” Prince preaches over a pulsing synthesizer chord. “Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else. The afterworld. A world of never ending happiness. You can always see the sun – day or night.”

This opening is so important. It haloes all the emotion and eroticism to come. It’s a preemptive strike against anybody who thinks sex is dirty. Prince was rewiring my subconscious, giving the steely nun who lived in there some pharmaceutical-grade sleeping pills, and leaving me open to fully appreciate the line on the record that stays with me the most to this day, the line that would probably still get my vote as the sexiest of all time:

“Animals strike various poses / They feel the heat / The heat between me and you.”

Hearing this while yearning to be with the love of my life affected me more than any prayer ever could. Because my lust was not sinful. It was a feeling that connected me to all living things, to the grand, mysterious engine at the heart of “this thing called life.” It was not something I needed to confess. It was a pure thought.

Thank you, Prince. And god bless you. Now, you can always see the sun.




Phife Dawg (1970-2016)


In 1994, I was hanging out in a friend’s room, listening to CDs. After I went down the list of my favorite artists at the time – all of them white men with guitars – I said something heinous about “real music with instruments” and how rap was an illegitimate art form in comparison. It wasn’t hard, anyone can do it … you know, the stupid, racist Sam Kinison argument.

My friend responded not with anger, but by saying “Yeah, I used to think that way. But then I realized it was more important to have fun.” And he put on a song called “Scenario,” by A Tribe Called Quest. And then I asked him to play it again.

The first rhymes on “Scenario” – the first rhymes on the first rap song I ever fell in love with – were performed by Phife Dawg, who died today at 45. You don’t need to remember the “Bo Knows” Nike campaign to understand the phonetic brilliance of “Bo don’t know jack / Cause Bo can’t rap,” to tap into the energy invested in those words. Phife (given name Malik Taylor) will always be remembered as a sidekick, as the perfect foil to ATCQ founder and visionary Q-Tip. He was the gruff realist who perfectly countered Tip’s buttery smooth poetry. But to me, he was an artist with no need for context. This was no hype man. Phife was “The 5-Foot Assassin,” whose verses were clever, funny, and perfectly undulating. He had swagger, but in an utterly positive way. “Here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am,” he boasted on “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” He’s the only rapper in history who could believably talk shit about being nice.

Q-Tip was the star, the dreamer, the guy you could see potentially making the shift to movies. He’s undoubtedly a genius, and one of my all-time favorites. But there is no Tribe without Phife Dawg. Tribe would have been no fun without Phife Dawg. I would have been no fun without Phife Dawg.


Catching Up With King: “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I read my first collection of King short stories – 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

“‘It was like Jeopardy,‘ he said. ‘In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is ‘The Inexplicable.’ The Final Jeopardy answer is ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer?”
-Stephen King, “The Moving Finger”


I work in a building with a small bathroom to employee ratio. After a year or so of stilted urinal conversations and close-quarters crapping, I discovered a hallway I hadn’t been down before. It led to the perfect men’s room – one stall only, off the beaten path, subtly effective air freshener. When the stall is free, life is good. But when it’s occupied, and I see the shoes of the guy who beat me to the punch, it feels like defeat.

Few writers could spin something memorable out of this mundane bit of oversharing. But with “Sneakers,” Stephen King essentially does just that. It’s one of my favorite short stories in his mammoth 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, in which an up-and-coming record producer keeps seeing the same pair of sneakers, in the same stall, on every bathroom break. The more it happens, the creepier things get – and that’s before the flies show up.

Before I continue expressing my newfound love for bite-sized King, this disclaimer: I have yet to tackle any of the author’s longest books (including The Stand and It, both more than 1,100 pages), so I can’t give the most informed opinion on the King short story vs. King novel argument. But I think I can definitively say this – his short stories are more fun.

The first four entries in Nightmares & Dreamscapes make for an exhilarating ride. I flew through them in one fevered sitting, marveling at the intensity and versatility on display. Over the course of just 135 pages, we get a gripping, “Tell-Tale Heart”-indebted mob revenge story; a harrowing cautionary tale to scientists who think they can solve the world’s problems; a creepy-kid horror piece best avoided by rookie teachers; and a brilliantly pulpy vampire story that involves a tabloid writer, small-town airports, and buckets of you-know-what. It’s a perfectly paced assault of sledgehammer-blunt ideas, hurtling relentlessly to their endings. King relishes the chance to spin these yarns. You can see the glint in his eye as he dangles us over the precipice, hinting at what’s to come and ensuring you will most definitely not stop reading until you know as much as he does. Take this passage from the third story, “Suffer the Little Children”:

“Miss Sidley frowned after them, reflecting that children had been different in her day. Not more polite – children have never had time for that – and not exactly more respectful of their elders; it was a kind of hypocrisy that had never been there before. A smiling quietness around adults that had never been there before. A kind of quiet contempt that was upsetting and unnerving. As if they were …”

This moment is one of several that made me think if King had been born a few decades earlier, he would’ve fit right in with Serling, Matheson and Beaumont in the Twilight Zone writer’s room. But that would be discounting the majority of his work, which attempts to give its characters and themes as much physical and historical context as possible. The half-hour episode grind would’ve driven him mad. In this book’s charming, conversational introduction, King addresses this issue head on, admitting that “everything wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be approximately four thousand pages long.” He sounds weary of the subject, of having to respond once again to.critics who regard “generosity with suspicion.” Every time he writes a great short story, he’s proving a point that he disagrees with. Props to him for just doing it anyway.

If Nightmares & Dreamscapes kept its initial momentum going throughout, it would really be something special. And it comes close, thanks to a finger that comes out of a drain, a fiercely loyal pair of chattering teeth, and a group of smokers who uncover a conspiracy that involves hideous bat-people. But it’s just too odds-and-endsy to truly hold together, capsizing at the end under the weight of several writer’s exercises – a Sherlock Holmes story runs into a Raymond Chandler homage, which gives way to an essay about his son’s Little League baseball team (the book’s only true WTF moment).

Still, I had the best time reading it. And I think that’s exactly the kind of review that King would hope for.


1. Pet Sematary

2. The Shining

3. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

4. 11/22/63

5. The Gunslinger


My Best Pictures

So here we are, a week before we get to watch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences give a bunch of awards to Alejandro’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Camping Trip. Per the usual, it’s gonna be a long, depressingly whitewashed event, drunk on its own twisted definition of “prestige picture.” Movie about a man beating insurmountable odds so he can exact revenge? Prestige Picture. Movie about a woman beating insurmountable odds so she can exact revenge? Genre Picture. Look, I’ll be thrilled if I’m wrong, and Mad Max: Fury Road wins Best Picture. But ever since February 2006, when I assumed Brokeback Mountain was a lock – especially with insulting dreck like Crash as its competition – I’ve learned to expect the worst.

But enough negativity. It’s the Oscars. I’m going to watch the shit out of them. And I’m going to picture what the Best Picture field would look like if it was up to me, just like every year:



Best of Enemies

At a time when “watching the news” means a screen full of red-assed pundits yelling themselves hoarse, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville take us back to the beginning of it all – the televised 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Their film is as compulsively watchable as those ideological showdowns were, framing them as the moment when TV editorializing went from “Point/Counterpoint” to “Point/Shut Up I’m Still Talking.”



The Hateful Eight

When the script for his eighth film leaked, I can see why Quentin Tarantino initially freaked out and announced he would never shoot it. Because while it has the look and feel and language of a period Western, at its heart, it’s an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, set in a cabin in a snowstorm. No-spoiler rules most definitely apply. So I’ll only say that The Hateful Eight is classic Tarantino – three hours of some of his best, most crackling dialogue, along with expertly deployed flashbacks and perspective shifts that hearken all the way back to Pulp Fiction.



Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller’s fourth installment of his Mad Max series continues the trajectory of its namesake – a post-apocalyptic loner forever scarred by the murder of his family. But Max (a quiet and weary Tom Hardy) is not the protagonist here. Fury Road is the story of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, never better), a steely-eyed, one-armed soldier running on dual engines of outrage and hope. She rescues the sex slaves of the tyrant Immortan Joe, hiding them in her armored rig. What follows is an exhilarating, non-stop chase sequence and overwhelmingly satisfying revenge tale. By the end, a semi full of traumatized people are driving full speed at their oppressors. And we learn that power is one thing. And strength is another.




After watching Best of Enemies, and ruminating on how cable news became the Limp Bizkit to Gore Vidal’s Rage Against the Machine, Spotlight might just be comfort food you need. This engrossing procedural drama projects a deep love for newspaper journalism, while still keeping one eye on realism. Director Tom McCarthy – who so convincingly played a reporter with spotty ethics on The Wire – depicts the true story of how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team uncovered a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and the rampant pedophilia in its ranks. McCarthy does for journalists what the best episodes of Law & Order did for cops. They work hard. They expose lies. They achieve some level of justice. Then we shut off the tube, and sleep better.




Don’t worry, survivors of Austin Powers In Goldmember. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third movie together isn’t a spy spoof. It’s a legitimately great spy movie – action-packed, intricately plotted, and very, very funny. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent stuck as the personal assistant of special agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Then disaster strikes, Cooper gets promoted, and the film ingeniously flips the script on your typical McCarthy comedy. We learn quickly that Cooper is more than just a lovable goof. She’s a brilliant agent, a highly trained fighter and marksman – far better than Fine or Rick Ford (Jason Statham, mocking himself with aplomb). Yet the CIA keeps giving her dowdy and sexless secret identities, a sly metaphor for Hollywood’s expectations of McCarthy. Her frustrated reactions to these moments are what make them funny. She’s acknowledging what she’s up against, before proceeding to gleefully kick its ass.




Shot on iPhones and starring untrained actors, Tangerine is a refreshingly unpolished snapshot of friendship, following two transgender prostitutes as they navigate the streets, buses and donut shops of Los Angeles. Its plot is thin: When Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from prison, she finds out from her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend has been cheating. Sin-Dee goes out looking for him. By keeping the story this simple, director Sean S. Baker can let the scenes play out in an Altman-esque way, with conversations starting, stopping, and overlapping in a way that believably mimics real life. It’s spiked with a joyful energy, but the darker moments feel just as organic. Like the final scene in a laundromat, which has the power of 1,000 “Lean On Mes.”



When Marnie Was There

The final film to be produced before Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement and Studio Ghibli’s ensuing hiatus (god it hurts to write that), When Marnie Was There makes masterful use of the “magical summer in the country” trope to tell the story of a child who worries that no one loves her unconditionally. When Anna discovers that her foster parents receive government payments for raising her, she becomes depressed. After a serious asthma attack, she is sent to stay with relatives in a gorgeous country home. Across the water, Anna discovers an abandoned mansion that turns out to be not so abandoned after all. Written and directed with tenderness and wonder by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret Life of Arriety), When Marnie Was There shimmers with natural light, and sparkles with the thrill of discovery. “You are more loved than you realize,” it says to us. What an absolutely perfect way to say goodbye.

David Bowie (1947-2016)


One of the regular functions of popular music is to distract us from our worries. To punctuate the good times and help us forget about the bleak ones. Not all pop stars are brainless optimists 100% of the time, but few have resorted to glossy escapism less frequently than David Bowie did over the course of a nearly 50-year career. From a young age, even the catchiest of Bowie’s compositions were immersed in the human condition, whether it was an astronaut meeting his maker in “Space Oddity” or the unyielding biological clock that powered “Changes.” This is one of the countless reasons why his death on Sunday struck such a resounding chord. Through every massively influential reinvention, he never condescended to us by refusing to challenge us. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality, but it was also urgently, kaleidoscopically sexy, a reminder that accepting the inevitable can set you free. He stared wide-eyed into the void and never sugarcoated anything. But he also never depressed us. He raised us right.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his final album Blackstar is a profound work of art made in the face of death. Released two days before his passing, Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record, ending his transmission to us all. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one of his most wrenchingly beautiful songs, the sound of nostalgia and regret making way for peace. From an artist who so convincingly sang about heroes with limited time, it’s perfect.