Facebook, as a platform, is troubled. Just so much. So many things, opinions and ads. I find myself on the same routine when I log onto Facebook. It’s the definition of a meaningless search. Like so many others, it’s part of my routine. Rarely do I jump into dialogues.
But on December 13, Facebook gave me something. Matt Cronin, who happens to be vice president of venues and sponsorships for Club Glow (owners of D.C. venues Echostage and SoundCheck, also recently acquired by Insomniac/Live Nation) posted about arguing with his colleague Nate Fleming as to who was better: The Weeknd or Frank Ocean.
Instantly, I was intrigued by the comparison. I don’t know why I’m such a comparison fanatic. It’s a unique form of an analysis: The townsfolk all gather, rolled up or crumpled in their hands their theses or theories on said topic. It basically comes down to which artist has touched you more. Of course, I had my opinion: Frank Ocean. Let’s move on, I thought to myself, arrogantly believing my decision came with the sound of a gavel. But when I viewed the comment box, I saw more resistance than I’d liked. Many people chose The Weeknd. And that’s when I decided I needed to explore this further.
I spent a few weeks with both of them. They accompanied me everywhere. The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye was with me as I’d jogged from Mount Pleasant up to 16th Street Heights. Ocean sang to me as I looked at frozen pizzas at the Target in Columbia Heights.
Now finally back from my travels, I will say that I am indeed impressed by Tesfaye. I’d always found him to be the creator of powerful hits. “The Hills” was the fireworks moment of my fictional Coachella DJ set, but I needed more from him. It was a little too vulgar in the beginning. It was like, I get it: You like vagina, bro. How many different times can you sing to me about having intercourse with a woman while coming down or plateauing off of blow? We’ve all been there.
My inclination to attack his adolescence was absent while listening to “After Hours.” I got out of that what I’d been missing prior. Also, I do love my 80s synth. “Blinding Light” is like a celebratory dance party with strobing lights and climactic moments, but in my mind. It’s interesting how we’ll dance to music in our minds in a kind of way that we’d never do in public.
“In Your Eyes” is a lovely ballad. I’m still listening to Tears for Fears and Pet Shop Boys, so whatever is going on in that song works for me. Also they have stuttering horns on the fade out, which is extremely ambitious. It worked! Well done, Wojtek Goral, an alto-saxophonist from Poland. If you get a chance, Google him. Once you see what he looks like, it’ll close the gap on any mystery you might have had regarding this song. Only that man could deliver that sound.
My shit is “Save Your Tears.” It sounds like a brooding 80s song. That’s all I really need. I’m just a rainy, depressed 80s movie in need of some sunshine. There’s a section of “After Hours” that might be the most sonic sequence on the album when the tunnel-like beat and sounds of metal from a distance collide with a winding bass. This dude definitely appeals to the darkness within.
Fun fact: I’d jog to both. When I’d jog to Tesfaye, I wanted to crush the run. I was empowered by the piercing snares, the orchestrally abrupt endings. Ocean allowed me to admire the beauty of 16th Street, the nicely kept lawns of each of the homes, the brick-solid churches. But with Tesfaye, I felt like I was running towards something. With Ocean, I strangely felt like I was running away.
Okay, now Ocean.
“Channel Orange” was cool to me. “Forrest Gump” was my favorite track, followed by “Thinking About You” (which I highly recommend at the Target on 14th, especially as you’re approaching selfcheckout). “Super Rich Kids” was just aight. I enjoyed the piano on that song, but it teeters off to me. I’m just not a fan of Earl Sweatshirt. For rappers, I’m very possessive of the 16-bar system, and if you can’t stick within (unless you’re insanely talented), stay the f–k inside the lines.
The rest of the album didn’t really do much for me. It didn’t move me. At the beginning of quarantine, my partner’s brother talked about how he found “Blonde” to be a body of work. To be honest, I struggled with that album when I first listened to it. That’s why I never revisited it – until last spring, and everything changed for me.
I have this relationship with things it takes me a little bit longer to digest. As a kid, movies or artists that I found kind of strange, I found those same artists and movies as an to be adult boundary-pushing. My little brain couldn’t comprehend the genius just yet. That’s what “Blonde” was to me.
As stated, this changed in spring. It messed me up. From the album’s smoothly low open, the reverberating bass that sits in the driver’s seat of “Nikes,” the heart strum of “Ivy,” the theatrical piano on “Pink + White,” the concert hall vocals during the second half of “Self-Control” (don’t sleep on the guitar either in the first half), the singing bells on “Nights” – I was in. The third act of that song is my favorite sequence on the album.
“Shut the f–k up, I don’t want your conversation,” is my favorite line.
There’s more. This album was monstrous. It was complicated, it was detailed. It was one of the greatest artistic accomplishments I’ve ever digested. F–king “Godspeed.” It starts off with electric rock and suddenly, I’m eight rows back at First Baptist Church with organ sounds all around and Black women singing toward the sky.
The narrative thread that is woven together, the gentle pacing, the honesty. All of it. I feel exposed after listening to that album. Ocean made love to me on that album. I let it happen, and kept coming back. I’m myself with him.
But I’m also pitting basically one album, “Blonde,” and a few singles from “Channel Orange” by Ocean versus a large collection of work by Tesfaye. And that’s not fair. Fun, but not fair.
Chris Richards, pop music critic for “The Washington Post,” isn’t too much of a fan of these comparisons.
“I’m always reticent to chisel my favorites in stone, and these kinds of binary decisions (Beatles vs. Stones, Biggie vs. Tupac) are especially vexing to me,“ he says.
“Of everything they’ve both done, the original recording of ‘House of Balloons’ [by The Weeknd] is my favorite of the albums, but ‘Pyramids’ [by Frank Ocean] is my favorite song,” Richards adds.
There’s a line in that song, “Whip ain’t got no gas tank but it still got wood grain.”
Story of my life.
“More generally, I think The Weeknd has the better voice,” Richards continues. “But I think Frank writes better lyrics and songs. Of the concerts I’ve seen, The Weeknd is the superior live performer, but I’d die to see a Frank show this year. I also think it’s cool how they’ve swapped places in the public consciousness: The Weekend started out as this anonymous mystery man, and now he’s more overexposed than ever. And while Frank was performing at the Grammys near the start of his career, he now appears to be living in another dimension. That’s why I hesitate to hold one guy’s hand up. Things change!”
Matt Cronin, starter of this drama, says that with Ocean, “You actually experience art” and argues that Ocean’s music is timeless as opposed to The Weeknd’s. Is this true? I guess only time will tell. I don’t know where we go from here. I have my thoughts, and you probably have yours.
“The Weeknd is alternative R&B for folks who are emotionally unavailable, and Frank is for if you’ve ever cried in the shower,” says Bisah Suh, friend and owner of 4421 Productions.
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