Blond on Blonde: Frank Ocean Breaks Down Binaries Without Breaking A Sweat
I wrote a story in the middle — It’s called “Godspeed.” It’s basically a reimagined part of my boyhood. Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.
“Godspeed” doesn’t whisper until late on Blonde. It’s a sensual vortex, mistily evoking nebulous, icily still images of pain and confusion evolving into retroactively formative experiences. Frank’s confession that “Godspeed” is an exaggerated, ‘reimagined’ portrait of his teen years is interesting. Not corresponding to the tradition of aggressively stressing verisimilitude, Ocean irreverently flaunts authenticity. His storytelling is as organic as his politics, and it’s not the sincerity of history that matters but the sincerity of feeling. Blonde is synecdoche, Frank Ocean; not a mechanical thesis, rather a sprawling Tumblr post navigating the fluidity of sexuality, gender, and ultimately happiness.
If anyone deserves an extended digestion period more than a reactionary first impressions, it’s Frank Ocean. Certainly, this isn’t a critical review but more of a fractious thinkpiece. To apply deconstructive thought to a work of such emotional volume would be frivolous, maybe even cruel. If you want to write appropriately and meaningfully about Blonde you have to explain how it makes you feel.
Ocean’s already established himself as a great storyteller, a great poet, a great songwriter, a Great. But on Blonde he’s a great therapist. On opener “Nikes” Ocean, in his elevated helium intonation, soothes ‘if you want dick I got you,’ a simple proposition that translates into a profession of unquestioning loyalty and affection, directed as much at the listener as his lover, an embrace which invites trust, confidentiality, and relief. I’ll largely refrain from now in quoting specifics because after dozens of listens Blonde has amalgamated into conducive, inseparable experience.
Ocean’s voice — which he self-annotates as ‘a baritone with tenor moments,’ a characteristically effervescent description — occupies the same immaterial cosmos as his lyrics. Just as insular as his whispy narratives, his baritone floats with a poetic ease conjuring tacit harmonies while remaining unshakeably corporeal. But when he croons with that immutable delicacy his fears, his promises, his esoteric references; these utterances drain into a subconscious netherworld, dusting down evasive emotional fractures and forgotten ephemera with an incisive twang.
The uncovered skeletons, gently polished, make you reconsider yourself and the manner you connect with the world in novel ways.
I’m speaking from a position of unquestionable privilege. I’m white, male, straight, middle class, but Blonde taps into wells of meaning I hadn’t discovered. I grew up in an active Catholic family, I went to a Catholic school and most of my school friends and their families were Catholic. Although I’d had my doubts during school I never really developed my agnosticism until university. I use agnosticism for lack of a better definition. By stated definition I fall under agnosticism, but I’m reluctant to self-describe as such. How can something as integral to my formation as a person as my Catholic upbringing be divorced from my identity, no matter how incongruous with my present lifestyle and ideologies? I believed in God, even if not necessarily the Catholic God, for so long that my faith, surely, is still intrinsically wedded to the fabric of my person. Without believing in God, would I be so radically different as to not be me? Lapsed Catholic, neo-agnostic, whatever, they’re interminably insufficient. On forms there’s no box for my religion.
This internal conflict is pitifully trivial in comparison to the racially, gendered and sexuality-motivated chauvinism and bigotry endured by minority groups for centuries but hopefully it illuminates some minuscule corner of Ocean’s influence, how he intimately exposes atoms of connection and disconnection between himself and the listener in our collective incompatibility with structural definitions, and the lasting, debilitating damage such restrictive definitions inflict.
Blonde recalls the paradox of relatability, when the expressly personal mutates into the universal. In Song of Myself, the poet Walt Whitman proffers ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ The line can’t be anything other than kitsch, but it hits home. Whitman was gay, marginalised, and often courted controversy with the obscenity of his work, but was also feverishly patriotic and optimistic, and 19th Century America adored him because his words read self-reflexively, they were his multitudes as one.
Ocean ascribes self-love as therapy, so demonstrably it’s almost crude, with song titles like “Be Yourself,” “Solo” and my favourite track — a meandering, journalistic, subversively affirming love letter— “Self-Control.” In accepting ourselves as who we are and not how society defines us we can subsequently connect and transcend the Whitmanian multitudes.
In the spontaneous elegance of his vernacular and the humility of his vocal cadence Ocean harnesses the multitudes of our own epoch, our self-assured, cripplingly anxious, perpetually questioning generation who long for a multiplicity of reasons for everything but are too frightened by the idea of one. Calcified against the nagging itch that there’s something more covertly substantial to consuming thought and experiencing living, we conform and cross that reductive, insufficient box. Non-religious. Signed and dated. Enveloped.
A while ago, the exact date archived in embedded datasets but spectrally absent from the piece, Frank posted a brief but deeply moving polemic on Tumblr; a plea for sympathy for his ‘brothers,’ for every community and individual gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender, and those who don’t define themselves by the thickness and depth of sexuality.
I daydream on the idea that maybe all this barbarism and all these transgressions against ourselves is an equal and opposite reaction to something better happening in this world, some great swelling wave of openness and wakefulness out here. Reality by comparison looks grey, as in neither black nor white but also bleak.
Blonde is certainly for his ‘brothers,’ but equally it’s for anyone who’s felt society’s compulsion to categorise frightening and alienating. Blonde is heroin and stimulant for the parts of you that are lost, vacant, broken: even those constituent fragments you’ve never consciously understood. Reality looks grey and bleak because what we want to happen can’t happen. The dream lover doesn’t dissolve the loneliness; the dream job becomes tedious; the dream city rains. Life is incomprehensible, but only fractionally so when paralleled with the symbiosis of human dissatisfaction. That’s why we need Frank’s daydreams. In an increasingly grey world which continues to aspire for stark black and white, it’s comforting to know that there’s someone who offers us an upper and a downer in one.
What we’re left with after the trip is the knowledge that we’re not alone in thinking everything is terrifyingly illogical and indefinable. In its own way, this is uplifting. Ocean’s stories are of illicit affairs, true romances, decadent hours, and insipidly pronounced decades, much like our own. His contentment gifts us the drive to battle on against personal anxiety and repressive structural binaries. Whatever we’ve endured, Ocean’s been there, done that. Not knowing and not caring and just accepting is beautiful and happy.
It’s a sentiment I entertain when I want to self-parody my liberalism, but I believe in its relevance. Once subjected to the assembly line of cognitive interpretation; absolutely everything both abstract and real becomes organic and relative; formal binaries do not exist; and noone has the right to tell you otherwise.