Gloom&B (Part 2)

Frank Ocean is a hurting singer like The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, but with poppier leanings; on his album Nostalgia/Ultra, released a month before House Of Balloons, he dilutes the debauchery and depression of The Weeknd into a form with more potential for chart success.  Ocean’s “Novacane” declares kinship with Gloom&B right from its title.  Instrumentally “Novacane” is mellow, but lyrically it’s all icy pleasurelessness: “I think I started something/ I got what I wanted/ . . . I can’t feel nothin’/ . . . Auto-tunin’, zero emotion, muted emotion.”  Ocean is frank about the source of his loss of feeling: getting what he wanted.  And what he wanted is not just personal, it is also musical – technology means his creative outlet is “muted,” or worse, “zero.”

Novacane’s hook centers around the phrase “fuck me numb.” In traditional Gloom&B fashion, sex is not pleasurable–it is the removal both of pleasure and of any other form of responsiveness.  Ocean hammers home the lack of sensation: he “still can’t feel,” he’s “trying to film pleasure,” but “it keeps on moving.” The memory of one girl haunts him, and he’s “been trying to get it back.”  The last two minutes of the song have no real verses; Ocean repeats “Novacane,” followed by “numb the pain”— he needs to stop feeling because the only alternative is hurt.  Then, as if losing his powers of expression, he lapses into moans before continuing with the empty, “I can’t feel a thing” again and again, and then the more specific “I can’t feel her,” interspersed with the numbing, “Novacane. . . for the pain.”  The inability to connect with other human beings is both cause and effect—the pain he’s trying to get away from and the state he ends up in.

Drake and the Weeknd are both from Toronto, and Drake wrote a note to Tesfaye in the liner notes of his new album, Take Care.  Drake’s latest release contains The Weeknd’s sonic fingerprints, and Tesfaye receives credits on five of its songs.  However, Drake is more subtle in his subversion of R&B, stopping on melancholy and avoiding Tesfaye’s intimations of danger.  Take Care includes two tracks featuring Tesfaye vocals – “Crew Love” and “The Ride.” “Crew Love” is Tesfaye’s brand of Gloom&B, with cymbal hits that shatter viscerally like breaking bones.  Tesfaye sings with a howl that hollows phrases of meaning.  When drums and Drake kick in, The Weeknd keeps Drake’s ego – “I think I like who I’m becoming” –mired in that unhappiness.  Tesfaye’s wail also suffuses “The Ride,” where Drake raps Gloom&B-isms: he’s famous but lacks true connections, he prays before sex, “just hoping that it feels good.” But to some extent the instrumentation contradicts Drake’s message—something unidentifiable sputters, buoyant and open, during the verses, and a chorus of voices sounds like a support group.  If you didn’t listen to the words, you might think happiness is possible.

Drake blunts the sharpness of his depression on other songs as well.  “Marvin’s Room” has little intrusions of clanking noise which reinforce the feeling of depression and dependence, but they are subtler and more human (one is literally a recording of an ex-girlfriend asking “Are you drunk right now?”) than the rumble employed by the Weeknd. It’s also a song to an former partner — Drake is still semi-involved in a relationship, which Tesfaye does not seem capable of.  Drake hits his gloomiest on a bonus track, “Hate Sleepin’ Alone,” which opens: “She said kiss me like you miss me/ fuck me like you hate me/ and when you’re fuckin’ someone else just fuck her like she ain’t me.” Love and hate are mixed in a volatile brew Drake can’t stop drinking.  But in the chorus, Drake confesses “I hate sleepin’ alone. . . half the time we don’t even end up fucking”, which almost sounds like an appealing to feeling. Ultimately, he maintains the luxury of choosing whether to swagger or lament.

The album artwork for these particular specimens of Gloom&B shows remarkable continuity – the images, like the music, emphasize emptiness, the impersonal, and the isolated.  House Of Balloons depicts a naked woman in a bathtub, her face obscured by balloons, Nostalgia/Ultra displays a fancy car alone at the edge of a forest, and Take Care portrays a solitary Drake, downcast despite the gold and art that surround him.  Just as the balloons are out of place in the bathtub, the bright orange car doesn’t fit with the lush greenery, and the man is lost in a world of gold and jewels.  On the covers of other R&B albums, these images might signify success in the form of sex and riches, and in a way they do here too: the problem is, it turns out that success is indistinguishable from failure.

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