Every time an artist releases a followup to an acclaimed breakout album, the early adopters are quick to churn out arbitrary comparisons. You see it everywhere. Kendrick Lamar raps in a languid, tearful voice on “u”? Better compare it to his voice-crackingly manic verse on “m.A.A.d City”. The Avalanches come out with their first album in 16 years? Time to comb the tracklist for a “Frontier Psychiatrist” analogue. In the case of “Solo”, a standout track on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, it’s tempting to label the song “Thinkin Bout You” by way of “Bad Religion” and call it a day. But “Solo” and its intriguing reprise are marked by a world-weariness that’s nowhere to be found in Frank’s earlier work. Success’ll do that to a person.
Lack of fulfillment is the theme that permeates “Solo”, presented in the forms of sad sex and fleeting highs. These two concepts blur together as the song runs its course, to the point where they’re completely indistinguishable at times. For example, in the album’s most singularly beautiful moment, Frank intentionally conflates the lines “in hell, in hell, there’s heaven” and “inhale, inhale, there’s heaven” in the chorus, effectively giving the track two separate but intrinsically connected theses. The constant give-and-take of unsatisfying drugs and even less satisfying sex carries a sense of profound melancholy, all the way from the first lines (“hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself/gone off tabs of that acid”) to the last (“I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you”). And all the while, in the midst of his passionate falsetto breaks (he really shows off his full vocal register here), Frank reassures himself that somewhere in this mess of blown trees and blowjobs, he’ll find contentment for himself. He’ll find heaven. He just has to keep rolling solo, never letting his guard down, and he’ll make it there. The immersive organ accompaniment and echoing background vocals emphasize what the lyrics already make plain: this brand of independence doesn’t have anything to do with freedom. It’s isolation incarnate.
On the other side of this depressing coin, we have “Solo (Reprise)”. Swap the organ for piano, swap the singing for rapping, swap Frank Ocean for Andre 3000, cut the running time down to a paltry 79 seconds, and you have a track that, at first glance, barely deserves to be considered more than a glorified interlude. But the track’s length belies the amount of musical variety it has in store. The flow of the song completely changes a good four times, and the piano arrangement is much more complex than it has any obligation to be. And, oh yeah, Andre can fucking rap. The raw skill he demonstrates here is stunning. Note how he plays with the accents on his syllables to fit them into the meter (“when I hear that another kid” early on, and less subtly with “I’m so naive, I was under the im-pression” later), and the way he slurs his words to squeeze as much as possible into a single line (I especially like his unorthodox delivery of “I-on’t pay no attention to it”, which eschews going the easy route and combining the vowel space between the words “no attention”). But Andre’s never been one to let his technical skills leave his lyricism in the dust; he’s on top of his game in that department as well, masterfully articulating his mature perspective on recent changes in the hip-hop industry. You could write a paper on the rhetorical qualities of this song. In the span of one minute, he transitions from humor (“so low that I can see under the skirt of an ant”) to apathy (“when I hear that another kid is shot by the po-po it ain’t an event/no more”) to anger (“over half of these hoes had work done/saying they want something real from a man”) to defeat (“so low that I am no rookie but feel like a kid/looking at the other kids”) to a final, crushing unifying statement: “Was I working just way too hard?”
Andre 3000 has made no secret of his disillusionment with his creative outings over the past few years, but “Solo (Reprise)” is his ultimate mic-drop. He’s done tolerating the way his scene treats him. By venturing into the depths of his own artistic hell, he hopes to find some semblance of heaven. Separately, these tracks paint pictures of two lost souls, desperately searching for highs and finding only lows. Together, we see Frank and Andre as perfect foils for each other: the jaded new talent and the wise, troubled veteran, each one on a Sisyphean quest to make it on his own. The takeaway is abundantly clear: when it comes to navigating the turbulent skies of fame, you won’t make it far flying solo.