Frank Ocean — Blonde
Preceding the release of his proper debut full-length, 2012’s Channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean posted this now famous note on Tumblr. In a world full of oversharing, Ocean shared just enough — reminiscing about a former lover in a poetic, thoughtful and beautiful way. And then came the album, which delivered similarly poetic, thoughtful and beautiful ruminations on love, life, friendship and family. But as great a writer as Ocean has proven to be, ORANGE never revealed too much, which only helped to perpetuate the mystery that continues to surround him. The music itself was gorgeous and spanned from undeniable hits (‘Thinking Bout You’ ‘Lost’) to forlorn personal ballads (‘Bad Religion’ ‘Forrest Gump’) to the formless pop odyssey centerpiece ‘Pyramids,’ delivering on the heels of his excellent 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. And after finding success most only dream of, Ocean had to disappear to create his masterwork.
After multiple rumored release dates, very little public discourse and a lot of impatience from music fans and publications alike — Frank Ocean returns with Blonde — an album that, put quite simply, shatters expectations. Not long after dropping the accompanying visual album Endless Ocean released the music video for ‘Nikes’ — which was soon revealed to be the opener on Blonde. The track manages to be instantly gratifying without really being much of a song at all — at least in the classic sense. The first vocals we hear from Ocean are distorted, pitched up — and his signature, smooth, natural voice doesn’t appear until well into the song — and it certainly feels like a triumphant return when it does. The opening track doesn’t have much of a structure — it’s more of a dream-like collage of thoughts and ideas seemingly floating through Ocean’s mind. He shouts out a fallen friend (A$AP Yams), idol (Pimp C) and most notably Trayvon Martin, as he sings about how he looks “just like” him and was shot and killed the same year Ocean released ORANGE. The song also has Ocean name dropping Carmelo Anthony (“Said she need a ring like Carmelo”), referencing the devil (“…be possessin’ homies”) and his Balmains while closing with details of a loveless relationship (“We’re not in love but I’ll make love to you”). But it’s the line “we gon’ see the future first” that speaks volumes about Ocean’s outlook as an artist. He pushes past modern expectations in order to explore the unknown — crafting music that is simultaneously singular and highly listenable. Suffice it to say, Frank Ocean sets a new standard with Blonde.
It’s within these 17 new and wonderful forward-thinking musical landscapes that we are also able to hear the contrast — Ocean’s lyrical obsession with the past. The line “living so the last night feels like a past life,” from ‘Nikes’ is both an attempt to live in the moment and a wish to forget it at the same time. During the dazzling ‘Ivy’ — a Blonde standout — Ocean laments “I ain’t a kid no more, we’ll never be those kids again,” yearning for his youth while trying to come to terms with the pitfalls of adulthood. There are similar instances of introspection throughout Blonde — memories of long lost summers (‘Skyline To’ ‘Self Control’), reminiscing to relieve the stress in ‘Nights’ (“Still got some good nights memorized and the look back’s getting me right”). But the most explicit example comes during closer ‘Futura Free’ — in which the first half sounds like a stream of consciousness confessional and includes the line “remember when I had that Lexus, no? Our friendship don’t go back that far.” The track concludes with recorded conversations featuring Ocean’s family and friends over a simple keyboard melody — it captures the innocent exuberance of youth and finishes with one of the subjects asking “how far is a light year?” It’s my belief that, as an artistic statement, Blonde is Ocean’s answer to that question.
Blonde is also preoccupied with dreams — or an alternate/distorted reality — and the subsequent anxiety created when the line between real and altered begins to blur. Ocean opens ‘Ivy’ with the line “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” but where that might be interpreted as a positive, he spins it to mean something more unexpected as it turns out to be more of a bad dream (“I could hate you now / it’s alright to hate me now”). And when Ocean snaps back to reality, often focusing on the idea of permanence (‘Pink + White’ ‘Skyline To’ ‘Nights’ ‘White Ferrari’), his internal struggle with the idea of mortality is made very clear. And the way he distorts his voice throughout Blonde creates further tension within this dream/reality dichotomy.
Aside from being a fully formed and confident artistic statement, the music on Blonde sets Ocean apart from his peers. Instrumentally, the album mostly features guitar and keyboard — adding propulsive percussion only when necessary (‘Nikes’ ‘Pink + White’ ‘Nights’ ‘Pretty Sweet’) — but there’s something refreshingly minimal about the compositions. And not only is Ocean’s voice a powerful force but he’s also one of the best songwriters working today — and is willing to experiment. Even at 17 tracks Blonde never feels bloated —thanks to an interesting variety of sounds and Ocean’s lyrical prowess. There’s a fluidity to it—an idea that begins right in the album’s title — the feminine spelling of Blonde as the title and the masculine spelling Blond on the cover — a subtle gender fluid statement. There’s something so important about the existence of Frank Ocean in 2016 — and while anxieties and uncertainties continue to cloud our modern existence — with Blonde, Ocean shows us that the future is full of possibilities.