‘Blonde’ by Frank Ocean

I was saying to some friends the other day that I have no idea when I will stop thinking of myself as a “boy” and start thinking of myself as a “man.” Obviously there’s no way to tell how much one will grow up in a given year, but I drew a blank when I tried even to guess. Twenty-six? Twenty-seven? I thought about my twenty-something friends. Were they “boys” and “girls,” or “men” and “women”?

Maybe the best answer is, Never. It’s hard to imagine what becoming “a man” would even entail. There is a constriction in the word itself that I do not like. It is not only about how it delineates growth, either: I also dislike what the word implies about the thing that is doing the growing. When I dance, when I cry, in my secret moments, I have often recognized parts of myself that feel like they are something other than male. “Man” seems to imply a singleness, a solidness, that I do not think exists in me, and which, if it did exist, I would loathe. Probably there are no men, only boys who have soured up and gone into hiding. I am not one thing, I am a mess of things.

In 2016 the word “mess” (see also “hot mess”) means someone whose life is not in order, who can’t keep things under control, perhaps someone who drinks too much, has a lot of sexual partners, forgets things, neglects things. We can all drink and smooch as much or as little as we want, of course, but which of us is free from this messiness, this uranium trend toward degeneration? Which of us hasn’t seen it manifest in one part or another of our lives? I hate the way the word “mess” is deployed as of late, even when people use it as a means of self-deprecation, because it implies not only that such messiness could be avoided, but that it is something other than glorious.

Frank Ocean’s first album (really his second, I think, but whatever), Channel Orange, was a masterpiece—everyone knows that. Everyone also knows that the album was about youth, the punkishness of youth, youth’s obsession with answers and meaning. I guess it was also about California and television, or something. It was flavorful, lush, and full, but also very full of itself, not to mention very naive. The conjoined messinesses of sex, drugs, and young intelligence are all there—“Super Rich Kids,” the toxic breakdown of “Bad Religion,” the thump of “Sierra Leone”—but there is something so performative about all of it, a lingering smell of Windex.

When I listen to Channel Orange now, after hearing Blonde, it is hard for me to remember what enchanted me about it so much. I suppose what I am after is messiness-as-messiness, not sex brags but confessions that slip out in mid-conversation, secret things you forget to keep secret. I am after the fatigue and the muted shame of someone who opens the door to show you into his apartment and curses as he realizes he has forgotten to pick up the clothes that were strewn all over the floor, the empty takeout containers still on the counter. I want the messiness of life lived and lived relentlessly, and the bliss of the voice that says serenely, but not without a secret and perhaps perverse joy, It’s Okay, I Don’t Mind.

If anyone says this album was not worth the four-year wait (which is stupid anyway, because people should not spend their lives waiting for albums), I will claw their face off. This is an album that could easily have taken four more years to make, and it would still look like a feat of strength. There is so much going on on every song, so many literal bells and whistles, birdcalls and vocal distortions and guitar flares, so many hundreds of fucking words, so many of which I still haven’t even caught yet. I mean, how could it have taken any less than four years to make? It is almost heartbreaking to say this, but some of these songs make The Life of Pablo look like Baby Einstein. It’s like reading Mrs. Dalloway, holding on for dear life during those first few pages, thinking, how am I going to keep up with this?

I don’t know what to write next, so I’m just going to put down my favorite lines on the album, which are from the end of the first song, “Nikes”:

I may be young, but I’ll look after you
We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you
When you’re not here, I’ll save some for you
I’m not him, but I’ll mean something to you
I’ll mean something to you
I’ll mean something to you
You got a roommate, he can hear what we do
It’s only awkward if you’re fucking him too

The discomfort caused by becoming aware one’s own messiness comes from the nagging suspicion that messiness is an essential part of one’s nature. But when you’re really in the trenches, when you get stuck in the rain or fall hopelessly behind at your job, it can be helpful to have such self-knowledge stowed away, agonizing as it is to hold on to. I should have the option to crawl into bed clutching my ambiguities like shards of glass: I am messy, I forget to respond to letters, I do not always feel entirely male, I skip showers, I take too many drugs. On the other side of vulnerability is a sore, shuffling confidence. This the ambiguity between Blonde and Blond: why should I have to decide who I am? This is what it means to lean forward into the camera while also covering one’s face with one’s hand. And is that a Band-Aid I spot on Frank’s index finger?

Robert Christgau, reviewing the Stones’s Exile on Main Street, called it “sprawling, fagged-out.” Those were different times, but I think I see what he was trying to say. Living one’s life solo can be hard enough without even thinking about other people, whoever they are. That’s why I love the balance between the soaring vocals and the muttered lines in songs like “Skyline To” and “Pink + White.” It’s like walking down the street in the cloakroom of my thoughts, remembering everything I have to do, thinking about everyone I hope I don’t run into. It’s the battle between conversation and conscience. Later, at the end of the unbelievable “Nights,” there is this decaying outro:

Every night fucks every day up,
Every day patches the night up
Every night shit, every day shit, 
Every night shit, every day shit
Shut the fuck up, I don’t want your conversation
Rolling marijuana, that’s a cheap vacation
My everyday shit, every night shit
Everyday shit, every night shit

I want to dance to these songs, but the words are so painful that as soon as I start, I have to sit back down, or else one of the chrome-laden choirs darts in from the wings and cuts off the rhythm.

I should not even be writing about this album, because, as I read the lyrics for some of these songs, I realize that I will need months to figure out what they are even about (I think this is the point of that Andre 3000 interlude and the chaotic “Pretty Sweet” that follows: to emphasize to the listener how much left she has to understand, to tie strings around her like the walkers in Star Wars) but it is hard to be pulled open by music like this without wanting to say something about why. I guess I could just drink some wine, but I would feel bad about that later. Even the shorter songs —I mean the actual songs like “Close to You” and “Good Guy,” not the dumb interludes about Facebook and pot, for which we will just have to forgive poor Frank, who, like the rest of us, is just not perfect—are unbelievably textured. That’s to say nothing of the two best and most complex songs on the album, “Self Control” and “White Ferrari” (two things I will never have), which morph and rupture so delicately and yet so mercilessly, beaching us on phrases like “facelift” and “mind over matter,” made hoarse and elevated so they sound like religious plaints. The guitars creep in, his voice pitches up or hangs loose, and I do not know what decade I am in or what gender I am supposed to be. It is not something eternal but a disorientation that slips past time:

You cut your hair but you used to live a blinded life
Wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice

On the unbearable outro to “Siegfried,” two (three? four?) voices drip over each other until we’re not sure who’s interrupting whom: “(I’d do)(anything)(for you)((in the dark)).” Devotion, shame, and fear: these are the feelings that lie beneath every moment of romance, every night of intoxication. The osmosis that takes place between the starry-eyed, gloriously messy moments of our lives and the black hole anxieties that prop them up is what produces the spark that makes us start talking and never stop. The tension between who we are and who we really are is what makes us make art, or work our asses off, or crawl into bed muttering and looking through old photos, or stay up until our phones die.

This, among other things, is what I think Frank Ocean is trying to tell us. The only champion we need is a champion of incompleteness; the only testament, a testament to inability. Someone has finally made something that reveres envy, ignorance, failure, messiness generally, and doesn’t sound obnoxious doing it. Someone finally understands that we are not stable creatures, that even when we stay at home on a Saturday we don’t know whether we will get a lot of writing done or simply fall apart. Some nights you really do get a lot of writing done, and attend a great dinner party too. On the other hand, some nights you get way too high and mumble until your friends drag you from the couch into your bed and wake up the next day feeling totally empty. On the other other hand, some nights you dance with tears in your eyes.

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