Without a question, my two favorite albums of 2016 are Frank Ocean’s Blond(e) and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. I have since realized that I love these albums for the same reason. Although one artist is often pegged as a progressive “R&B deconstructionist” and the other as a singer-songwriter of “folk chamber pop,” their profound ability to arouse emotion in their listener emanates from the same source: a complete rejection of definitive lyricism/messaging that is matched by their indulgence in overtly enigmatic and ultimately inconclusive meanings.
Both albums clearly demonstrate that these artists no longer believe that traditional songwriting is suitable for the feelings that they seek to convey. In doing so, the artists must abandon all conventional song techniques like the typical verse-chorus-verse structure or even legitimate English words. For example: Vernon’s “astuary king,” which sounds like real word but isn’t one, requires that the listener literally create a meaning for his or her own definition; Ocean’s consistent use of both the masculine Blond and the feminine Blonde as titles exhibits his own personal frustration with how meaning is restricted and contained by the mere addition or subtraction of a letter. Vernon and Ocean also both experimented with multi-media publications like cryptic lyric videos and magazines. This exemplifies their need to communicate the feeling of an experience rather than a straightforward narrative, beyond the confining medium of an album.
Blond(e) and 22, A Million are watermarks of not only their creators’ musical maturation but also their own personal growth. Retrospectively, the similarities in these artists’ career paths are surprisingly similar: Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra (2011) and Vernon’s For Emma, Forever Ago (2008) both exploded onto their respective music scenes, garnering media attention and rapidly creating loyal fan bases. Both albums were deeply introspective and influenced by their experiences with interpersonal relationships, but eventually tore these men from their podiums of anonymity and thrust them into the spotlight. They met this newfound attention not by shying away or succumbing to the fame, but rather expanding on it by releasing Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011) and Channel Orange (2012) to universal acclaim. These projects shared ambition and elegance, paired with a beauty and breadth that fans quickly devoured, which were luxuriated in richer production values, a lot more moving parts, and were considerably more dense. Then, they stopped for four or five years, still working on music with side-projects or collaborations but never releasing anything regardless of the external pressure from fans and labels. They did what most artists at that post-second-successful-album-juncture fail to recognize the importance of: they simply lived their lives.
This story of their discography sheds light on the mental states of Justin and Frank during the recording of these albums. They matured and evolved as men and as artists. As listeners, we don’t know what they did in the past couple of years, but we can certainly feel it stirring and pushing every sonic endeavor. Ocean sings about heartbreak, but we don’t even know if it is in reference to a man or a woman. Vernon auto tunes some of his words to an unrecognizable degree. And yet the emotional impact is still present, if not greater, in these moments of obfuscation and buried truths. What these two albums demonstrate is that these men fully understand the inability of words to properly articulate the truth of their feelings. Instead, they gesture at it with as much force as they could muster, knowing that linear narratives, traditional structures, and fully coherent lyrics will not illustrate the world in their heads.
I first noticed their shared proclivity for ambiguity when I felt the same kneejerk reaction to research the meaning of their lyrics on sites like Rap Genius. I dug and I dug, but I always came up short, despite the sidebar of Genius elucidating stanzas and song titles with personal anecdotes of the artists’ lives. I disagreed with what little explicit meaning I could scrape from these websites and found that most of it was speculative or self-contradicting. Defeated, I was forced to go back to the songs themselves to analyze and assess my own feelings in relation to the albums and carve out my own meanings. I clung to every note, chord, and word. I was compelled to see the world through their eyes and their experience, but through an opaque mirror where I was bringing as much meaning to the table as they were – all the while deeply aware that what I was feeling was what they were feeling on some level – even if I couldn’t quite describe these feelings with one word or one phrase or one stanza, and neither could they.
- Matthew Hughes