It’s been a pretty good month for music. Detroit rapper Danny Brown dropped his first album in three years, which he’s hyped as his career-defining release. Frank Ocean unveiled his sophomore effort with no warning after four years of silence, and Bon Iver finally got around to a third studio album following a five-year break. The even better news? They were all worth the wait.
There was a hint of what to expect from Justin Vernon, primary songwriter and frontman of Bon Iver, when he made ‘Heavenly Father’ for Zack Braff’s movie Wish I Was Here – the song is much better than the film – but the heavy electronic influences are still a surprise to hear from the guy who once recorded guitar songs in a winter cabin. Underneath its technological shell, Justin’s angelic vocals still paint canvases of isolation in 22, A Million. Strip away the industrial-style drums at one point and heavy autotune at another, and you still have a guy that wants you to stay over for tea. The vague lyrics, stranger artwork and bonkers song titles are simply different cases to Vernon’s musings of connection, memory and solitude. Acoustic strumming fades back into view sometimes.
22 ‘(OVER SooN)’ is a gorgeous introduction to the album, reminiscing on paths taken and not, with gospel-like vocals and sweeping strums. The goosebump-inducing ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ feels like an updated take on ‘Woods’ with Justin’s voice being the only thing on show as he powerfully yearns for a love lost, the vocal effects becoming overwhelmingly intense as he painfully croons. ‘21 M◊◊N WATER’ quietly builds into ‘8 (Circle)’, a soaring 80s style ballad with clever arrangements and a great brass section towards its climax.
It’s a shame it is all over so soon. At 34 minutes long the album whizzes by too fast to leave a strong overall impression and, outside of the already mentioned exceptions, many of the tracks feel more like experimental demos with verses that need extending. The layered instruments occasionally manage to hide the fact that Justin’s musical ideas are running a bit low this time around, and the brief running time reflects that even more so. But 22, A Million isn’t entirely a rushed misfire. It’s clearly an album that has been toiled over, one that’s filled with cool sonics and flashes of the musical beauty that makes Bon Iver so memorably moving.
Curiously, Frank Ocean ended up exploring his sound in a similarly esoteric direction. Now that some time has passed since it dropped, Blonde stands nowhere near Frank’s past. It’s a soothing, gradual record, filled with subtle guest spots near impossible to notice unless you’re looking for them and an impressive collaborator list, their exact additions shrouded in mystery. The structures of the songs are far more experimental and loose compared to the directness of Channel Orange. Drums are practically non-existent. Glistening guitars are sprinkled abound. Pitched up vocals pop into place. Blonde has no drops. The whole package is arranged in such a gentle fashion; its brilliance can be missed at first glance.
You need to listen through Franks’ lyricism to feel his tales. He’s always been at his best when he’s telling a story, and the journey Blonde takes you on of long nights out, hearts broken, good times and lost love is powerful stuff. He’s got a gift for talking about modern romance like no other singer out there, perfectly traveling that uniquely millennial path of trying to play things cool but making your feelings clear. “We don’t talk much or nothing/but when we talking about something/we have good discussion” speaks volumes without saying much at all.
Every song on the album shows a snapshot of Frank’s life with the same amount of lyrical perfection, and it’s always backed up by comparably gorgeous song writing. ‘Nikes’ description of one person craving more from a causal relationship seamlessly mirrors the musings about an ex on ‘Ivy’. ‘Pink + White’ is a breath-taking soar through an LA summer day, complete with strings, old-school 70s production and backing vocals from Yoncé. ‘Self Control’ has Frank slickly serenade how he’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight, and ‘Nights’ contains a brilliant beat switch-up in its second half to show a different take on the aforementioned nights Frank describes. That’s not mentioning André 3000’s surprise verse on ‘Nights (Reprise)’, the album casually going trap before André vanishes, acting like it never happened.
Once you let the smoothness of its production pass, the brilliance of the songs themselves is crystal. There’s not a handful of highlights à la Frank’s last album – most of the songs are equally majestic. ‘I’ll be honest, I wasn’t devastated/but you could’ve held my hand through this, baby’. ‘The markings on your surface/your speckled face’. The yearning never stops, and it’s unfolding never ceases being beautiful. There are a few missteps in the form of recorded conversation filler tracks, but they don’t dampen the remaining 95% of the tracklist. With time, maybe you’ll see that Blonde is better than Channel Orange, too.
Not much needs to be said about Atrocity Exhibition. Danny Brown made the best hip-hop album of the year, and maybe the best alternative one since Madvillainy. If the Joy Division title reference isn’t enough of a hint, it’s a dark, never-ending ride on the roundabout of drug addiction, filled with fast flows, clever metaphors and pitch black chuckles. It’s not just that he has more rhymes about coke lines than anyone else, it’s that he doesn’t forget the downsides to its abuse, and won’t let you either. He ends ‘White Lines’ yelling ‘I hope it ain’t about my time to go’. The opener has him describing ‘I’m sweating like I’m in a rave/been in the same room for three days’. Danny can’t stop partying, but he doesn’t seem happy about it in the slightest.
That’s not even mentioning the insane production he fans the flames with. The singles might have been slightly odd, but they banged. In the context of the rest of the album, they’re well-needed, well-timed respite from the other 12 tracks, unapologetically experimental and straight-up weird in nature. Paul White provides the main course with sides from Black Milk, Evian Christ, Petite Noir and Playa Haze, and their strangeness pays off in massive ways. Most tracks are no longer than 3 minutes, coming in to tell one story over a distinctive melody before abruptly cutting into another. There’s slower ambient tales of Detroit street life, there’s fast-paced odysseys of excess, and there’s creepy brags about being Kubrick with 2 bricks. The songs where Danny noticeably slows things down to change up the atmosphere feel needless, but there’s not a single bad track on Atrocity Exhibition. Danny might have one thing on his mind, but he tells you about it in a myriad of memorable ways over some of the best beats hip-hop has ever seen this decade. He might have made the album he’ll be remembered for.
Go check out all three, though. They’re all brill in their own ways.
P.S: D.R.A.M’s debut is lovely, too. Good vibes only. Go get it.
P.P.S: Go check out Franks’ Endless as well. It’s underrated. Some of the tracks are just as good as Blonde.