A Note on ‘Blonde’
The past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to Car Seat Headrest, DJ AM (may he rest in peace), Burial, The Oh Sees, and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. As the internet-hype surrounding Boys Don’t Cry began to swell, I became more and more anxious about the release. I don’t contribute to the creative universe at that level, but I do know the feeling of having expectations placed on your art.
On Creative Anxiety
Over the past year, my DJ-career has rapidly taken off. It’s a great outlet for musical creativity and personally fulfilling in a variety of ways. Part of the gig is that it’s anxiety-inducing and nerve-wracking knowing that the crowd only cares about hearing a mix of all of the perfect songs that make everyone come alive on the dance floor. They’re not there for me. I’m not Calvin Harris, so nobody cares about what I think is good.
“Is this set going to be fresh enough?” “Am I even doing anything creative?” “Am I playing for the crowd or for myself right now?” “Why doesn’t anyone like actual dance music?” These questions plague my mind and become the nerves that I feel before pressing play on the first track.
When you’re an artist of Frank’s stature, you’re placed into a much more intense paradox that’s nearly impossible to break free of. Everybody wants channel ORANGE, but the record has to be new and fresh enough to make them feel the same awe as when they listened to “Pilot Jones” and “Pyramids” for the first time. Fans expect you to out-do their own expectations of you without becoming an entirely different artist. This would drive me to insanity — and a once-over of Endless indicates that Frank may have actually visited there as well.
On Saturday, Frank pulled the trigger. It’s Monday, so, I have not yet listened to Blonde 100 times. I have not yet lived with the record long enough to figure out how it settles into my library and how I engage with it. However, I did quickly determine that the record is impressive. At first glance, “Nikes” hits. “Pink + White” has the Queen in the background entirely understated. “Solo” hits. “Self Control” is visceral for anyone who‘s been through a break-up. We’re not even halfway into the record and it feels like an overload of feelings. Then, almost as an intermission, “Solo (Reprise)” comes and you remember that Andre 3000 is still fire.
This is an emotional record. And in standard Frank-fashion, its ugly. It’s overtly honest. It’s insecure and disappointed with life. It’s wondering if your ex will remember you from time to time. It’s realizing that the industry you’re in isn’t what you thought it was. It’s loathing modern dating. It’s getting high to cope with being alone. It’s coming to terms with a breakup and feeling that first wave of positivity about your self image.
It’s the feeling of not wanting to die but being so tired of living.
I think many of these are feelings we all experience at times. That makes them important to connect with — to confront and make something of, so that we can understand ourselves and each other better.
Musically, this is not channel ORANGE. That may be disappointing to many casual listeners, but the record sounds incredible. There are legendary players in the game that touched this record. Rick Rubin’s production, Johnny Greenwood’s guitar tracking, the flavors of Kendrick and ‘Yonce, the 3000-degree heat Andre from, James Blake’s soundscapes…the list goes on. Regardless of the A-list team involved, all of these people joined up to help Frank create his album. They aren’t features, they’re friends sitting in the studio offering guidance and praise and creative criticism. Like his prior works, the entire record is centered on Frank-further reinforcing his confidence in his craft.
It’s minimal, guitar-driven, and doesn’t rely too directly on its contributors — but rather tastefully utilizes them like dashes of musical spice. Sonically, it’s a nod to what R&B is and an exploration of what R&B can and will become. Lyrically, the record is a memoir of who Frank Ocean was and is, and who he may or may not become.
For me, this is a highly enjoyable and mature work composed by someone dealing with the anxiety of expectation, the pain of heartbreak, and a dark wrestle with faith. Blonde begins with Frank acknowledging his success and authenticity as an artist. It ends with Frank uncertain of how much further he will go — and whether or not he wants to go anywhere at all.