Apparently, there are few things on this planet that can negate the significance of Calvin Harris’s vestigial relationship drama, or the fact that Migos is finally enjoying a long overdue run at superstardom after being primed for years. But a single featuring Frank Ocean is going to be considered, first and foremost — maybe almost exclusively — as a facet of his oeuvre. “Slide,” the fresh collaboration between Harris, Migos, and Frank Ocean, doesn’t make the comparison too difficult.
At first listen, “Slide” sounds like a sun-kissed Calvin Harris original, a summer anthem arriving a few months early (and if that isn’t clear, Harris’s liner notes, which contain all eight instruments he used in the song’s recording, really drive the point home). There’s a taste of bedroom pop in the production as the sounds of echoing claps punctuate Harris’s new pared-down approach to EDM’s hi-fi viscera.
And if you were expecting “Slide” to recall Migos’ last high-profile EDM collaboration, 2014’s Carnage-produced, “Bricks,” look elsewhere: while Carnage’s festival trap-tinged beat gave Migos ample room to wax frenetic, Harris’s production on their collaboration (which strikes the ear as a not-quite congruous amalgam of chillwave and Harris’s patent electro house) forces the group to comport. Perhaps that’s why we find Quavo adopting a new, plaintive métier in the opening bars of his verse, or why Offset delivers his best verse in recent memory with surprising coherence.
But upon repeated listens (you will), what becomes apparent is that Harris takes a number of cues from Ocean’s excellent effort from last year, Blonde. The opening seconds provide a flashback to the pitched vocals that permeated Blonde’s standout cuts like “Nikes” and “Ivy”; soft piano riffs dance in and out of the open spaces in Ocean’s baritone, reminiscent of “Pink + White”; and doesn’t that synth seem to almost parody the organ that haunts “Solo”? The more one listens to “Slide,” the more it sounds like repository for Ocean’s voice, which could explain Migos’ masquerade and Harris’ new sound. And it’s a product of Ocean’s reclusiveness — and his finicky creative process — that every song with Frank Ocean on it necessarily becomes a Frank Ocean song.
Maybe that’s why I can’t shake the feeling that, despite the song’s abject catchiness, there’s something that doesn’t completely jive about “Slide”: it is, at its core, a quickie from an artist who famously spent four years on the follow up to Channel Orange, and however unfair comparing the song to Blonde as a work is, it’s also inexorable. It’s jarring to hear Ocean singing in service to a work of such minimal scope: “Thinking about You” has always, always been best understood in the context of Channel Orange, and his best song — and one of the finest released in years — remains “Pyramids”, a single that wears all of its sweeping ambitions on its sleeve. Gone is the imagery that has made Ocean the finest chronicler of young love in a generation, and what is supposed to be Ocean’s star turn on the song is rendered as a lame chorus, lacking all of the effortless authenticity of a Frank Ocean original: “Do you slide on all your nights like this?/Do you try on all your nights like this? (I might)/Put some spotlight on the side/Whatever comes, comes too clear.” It’s almost as if the grossly utilitarian bent of EDM isn’t a hospitable environment for Ocean, despite the genre’s lucid mainstream ambitions.
It’s difficult not to pathologize “Slide.” For Harris, it’s symptomatic of a return to form, a broadcast of his creative pivot in preparation for a banner summer, no doubt. For Migos, the song is symptomatic of a growing attachment to uber-palatable singles, an approach that carried Culture to the top of the charts. But for someone so seemingly hyper-conscious of his legacy, what purpose does “Slide” serve Frank Ocean?
Last Friday, Jay Z made a surprise appearance on an even more surprising venue: the debut episode of Ocean’s Beats 1 Radio show, Blonded Radio. Apparently, Jay has more than a few gripes about the state of the music industry: “You take these pop stations, they’re reaching 18-34 young white females. If you think a person like Bob Marley right now probably wouldn’t play on a pop station.
“Now every club is a hip-hop club. Every club is a music club. You go in there, you’re liable to hear EDM, hip-hop, you’re gonna hear some soul, you’re definitely going to hear “Poison” around 2-3 in the morning.
“You know, people, like, they wanna shoot for that, and then they’re making music that’s not really conditioned to who they are, who they are so they can reach a certain platform.”
I listened to “Solo” today, an unseasonably warm day in New York. Everyone else seemed primed to take advantage of the weather, too; the Soho streets were teeming with shoppers, the air was filled with heady, throwaway conversation, and amongst all of this, Blonde’s stripped-down album cut soundtracked a sudden optimism: there’ll be more days like this, someday. I’ll have “Slide” stuck in my head until the seasons call for something else, for better or for worse. But I can’t ignore that we have a long way to go until summer.