Album Review: Frank Ocean — Blonde (August 2016)
This review is part two of a series of album reviews on notable recent releases, with less focus articulating initial reactions and instead emphasizing thoughts and experiences developed over time. [Part One]
“Listen: stop trying to be someone else. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself, and know that that’s good enough.”
Much has been said about Frank Ocean in the last four years since his major-label debut Channel Orange first hit the collective airwaves. And while most of that time has been full of confusing hints and gestures of a forthcoming album — somewhere in the works but forever yet to be released — we were finally presented with Blond(e) in late August.
It arrived amid a culture where the rapacity of social media and the endless manipulation of norms brought by digital technology have both record companies and musicians alike caught up in an unprecedented identity crisis. For what little momentary trends can be deciphered and calculated to bring immediate financial reward, we observe the entire industry working towards those ends — the lack of sincerity is palpable.
Despite these conditions, Blond(e) successfully pierces through the ether and puts into question the necessity of a traditional recording contract and the value that it may/may not bring to artists today. It was independently released by Frank Ocean through an Apple Music exclusive and in the first week had already made more than $1 million in sales through iTunes.
But how much of its initial success was actually a by-product of mainstream hype? Arguably, there was an intense, rabid consumption of the album in the days after its release but as with all things caught in the cultural schizophrenia of our time, it tragically sits atop the garbage-pile of history merely eight weeks later.
It’s clear, however, that monetary success and cultural saturation were not top priorities for Ocean — most of the albums song structures prevent the work from being mass commercialized. It is therefore less likely than other Big Important Albums™ this year to have any of its tracks heard in department stores, gyms, in advertisements or at the club on Saturday night — in this way, the album remains a work of Art in the most radical sense; its significance is both personal and political.
It is an album of intense introspection and predominately focuses on stories that illustrate the range of emotions one might experience when confronting the contradictions between a desired sexuality and oppressive social norms. Blond(e) maintains its integrity in large part to Frank Ocean’s own experiences but his reclusive and reserved demeanor generates a furtive lyricism that successfully oscillates between fact and fiction, universalizing the work and allowing listeners to find themselves within it.
The first four tracks of the record provide insightful contextual experiences that coalesce to form the powerful emotional atmosphere Frank Ocean consistently maintains throughout the entire hour running-time. The cynical nature of the distorted lead track “Nikes” turns into reminiscent tracks (“Ivy” and “Pink+White”) of growing-up making mistakes, falling out of love, and personal loss.
This all concludes in a voicemail interlude, “Be Yourself,” featuring a mother leaving a motivational message to her child. The track cuts right to the heart of the records purpose: sometimes, in search for truth, you must turn radically inward, spend some time with yourself and be confident in who you are. The lack of specificity used in the voicemail helps to universalize its message and strike the listener just as directly as its intended recipient, while the subtle keys playing in the background give the track an ethereal clarity that demands proper attention.
We’re then quickly dropped into the deep, inquisitive spirals of lonerism on “Solo” and seemingly pushed along, vicariously, through the beautifully composed organ arrangement and the narrators heavy reliance on smoking marijuana. While this song marks the beginning of a series of impressive tracks — easily the most self-reflective and experimental tracks on the record — it stands above the rest not only as the most polished in its lyrical double entendres and juxtapositions but also in its stark ability to render life to those often indescribable moments of loneliness and longing.
All that considered: “Skyline To” is also a great contender for one the best composed tracks of the year (to date). The track moves at a euphoric and yet haunting pace while the peppered smokey echoes of Kendrick Lamar help induce more anxiousness. The narrator hazily reflects on the sex, love, and beauty of a past homosexual relationship which has long since ended but ultimately finds peace as the track concludes with one of the brightest musical moments on the album.
Our next interlude, “Good Guy,” features a quiet and mumbled Frank singing over a minimalist piano track. In just one minute and six seconds, he uses a story to express an array of emotions surrounding questions of sexuality, unreciprocated feelings, and the contradictions between our “real” and “digital” selves. It culminates with a recorded conversation between two male friends intuitively suspecting themselves and the other as gay vicariously through a heteronormative conversation about their lack of interest in “bitches.”
As we switch into the following song, “Nights,” we usher in a round of tracks that begin to form a more confident subject. While the last few songs were isolating in their reflections, the record turns more aggressively poignant thanks in no small part to the exhilarating guest appearance of André 3000 on “Solo (Reprise).”
Then, the loud chaotic sounds of a race track burst in on “Pretty Sweet” while Frank declares, “to the edge, I’ll race; to the end, I’ll make it; all the risk, I’ll take it.” Here, in juxtaposition with the eerie schoolyard-esque teasing, “we know you’re sugar; we know you’re sweet like a sucka,” which ends the song, we find our subject coming to terms with his sexuality and refusing to care what others think.
All of this comes to a head in “Seigfried” — the most vulnerable track on the record as we find our subject torn between the fantasies of a love never-to-be and the social expectation to settle down and have a family. The title could be a reference to composer Siegfried Wagner who is known for his bisexuality and dealt with constant pressure from his mother to marry and have children. He ultimately caved later in life following the Harden-Eulenburg affair and had four children but remained sexually active with men.
But while Frank Ocean echoes that struggle and sings in a chilling exhalation “I’m not brave!,” he realizes he would still rather live a life outside of the mainstream norms. The track finishes with a spoken-word introspection demanding himself (and us) to be “less morose and more present,” to enjoy life for the moment that we have it, and to continue to love even if we don’t get it in return.
Frank Ocean lays bare on Blond(e) deeply held insecurities regarding questions of sexuality within a rigid and oppressive society that conditions and enforces a strict hetero-normalcy. Even the subtle discrepancy between the album title Blonde and its appearance on the album cover as Blond points to this struggle between masculine expectancies and feminine attributes. It is within this emotional honesty with himself that the album maintains its authenticity and prevents itself from becoming another wasted, cheap, mass-produced product.
Instead, we have one of the most musically dense albums of the year combined with a brilliantly mystic lyricism full of double-meanings and deep social criticism. Frank Ocean remains a force to be reckoned with not only in the post-R&B genre in which he masterfully floats but also across the spectrum, demanding so much more from artists and Art.
Other notable tracks on the album include: “Self Control,” “Godspeed,” and “Futura Free.”