Frank Ocean-Blonde: A Review

Frank Ocean has always been quite a peculiar and enigmatic figure in the music industry. Similar to Hollywood’s Katharine Hepburn or R&B sensation The Weeknd, Frank Ocean has subsequently strayed away from the perks of stardom and has instead chosen to live a relatively reserved and private away from the studio. This inherent need for privacy, along with the jaw-dropping acclaim and success that Frank’s debut studio album, Channel Orange, generated, resulted in an immense interest in Frank’s next upcoming project. Originally called Boys Don’t Cry, Frank Ocean’s sophomore album itself took almost four long years to finally reach the audience’s ears. During this tedious and tiring buffer period, the hype for the album dramatically increased, to the point that fans were stalking the artist’s Tumblr blog for hints and clues for the album release, theme, songs, and lyrics. Release dates were sporadic, artist features were rumored, and album covers were ‘leaked.’ Safe to say, I have never seen so much anticipation and hype over an upcoming project before.

Library Card Slip posted on Frank Ocean’s website.

But the hype and interest reached its peak on August 1, 2016, where a mysterious livestream of Frank Ocean building what seems to be a staircase in an abandoned warehouse surfaced on his official website. Almost two weeks later, music would accompany the eerie and haunting imagery of Frank Ocean cutting wood beams and constructing furniture. This livestream would ultimately become Frank Ocean’s visual album, Endless, a project purposefully designed in order to fulfill and terminate his binding contract with Def Jam Records. Now an independent artist at last, Frank Ocean created his own label, titled Boys Don’t Cry and released the widely anticipated Blonde two days after.

Before even opening the album itself and enjoying its contents, the album cover itself instantly grabbed my attention. Immediately, I was reminded of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the Life of Pablo, with the minimalistic and basic design. However, upon further inspection, the background and meaning of the basic cover shows. Right away, one can be able to detect a major theme within the album: identity and independence, just by looking at the improper use of ‘Blonde’ and ‘Blond,’ along with Frank Ocean’s unexpected green hair (a result of a failed hair bleaching). The decision to also show Frank Ocean’s newly toned and chiseled body on the album cover may also reveal that Frank’s overwhelming self-confidence, an admirable trait given that he has battled criticism over his sexuality, religiosity, and political views.

Frank Ocean’s Famous Tumblr Letter

But let’s not spend too much time interpreting pictures, and instead, dig right into the music itself. First things first however, I cannot stress this enough. This is not Channel Orange. It was never meant to be and it never will be. It is so dramatically different from its predecessor that it can be difficult to interpret it as a Frank Ocean album at times. Perhaps the core of this distinction lies in the production and underlying themes of Blonde. One of the defining characteristics of Channel Orange, and also one of its massive drawing points, was its lavish and eloquent production and instrumentals. Songs like Pyramids and Super Rich Kids, were dictated by grandiose and glamorous production that epitomized the celebrity and Hollywood-like lifestyle that celebrities, artists, and the wealthy were accustomed to. This type of production is nowhere to be seen on Blonde, and instead replaced with very minimalist and clean production and samples. Along with the difference in production, the themes of the albums are also drastically different from one another, or are improved upon. Channel Orange attempted to tackle the recklessness and affluenza of fame and fortune while also focusing on Frank Ocean’s personal struggles and misfortunes. On Blonde however, Frank Ocean has opted in to focus solely on himself. To quote Pitchfork:

“At first, Frank Ocean was simply a great storyteller. Then he became the story — an avatar for all of our fluid modern ideals.”

However, with Frank Ocean’s experimentation and differentiation from his Grammy-winning musical formula, came the initial harsh criticism and hatred towards the new album. Many people ranging from my friends to total strangers on musical forums had mixed reviews upon their initial reactions to the album. Some called it ‘absolute trash,’ while others described it as absolutely ‘forgettable.’ And to be perfectly honest, I was one of the latter. Upon listening to the opening track: Nikes, I was blind-sided by the heavily auto-tuned, high-pitched voice throughout the entire track. It seemed like an annoying and cheap gag that Kanye would do as a filler track or interlude track, but instead, it was the opener to one of the most anticipated albums of the decade. Safe to say, I was thoroughly disappointed, as the first track usually sets the tone and direction for the entire album. And as I did my first run-through of Blonde, I was still disappointed. The only stand-out track I heard was Self Control, which only got sympathy from me because of the recent break-up I was going through at the time. But besides that, nothing else stood out. I went to bed without listening to it again, and instead opted to watch Youtube videos until I passed out.

Days would go by before I had the courage to give the album another try. I gave the album another listen, reading the lyrics along with the songs. While totally ignoring the first track, I began to appreciate the songs more and more. Even obscure and overlooked gems such as Skyline To and Close to You began to appear more on my daily playlists and Spotify feed. Hidden and overlooked messages and themes began to unravel amongst the deeply descriptive and cryptic lyrics within Frank Ocean’s ballads. Feelings of nostalgia and the ideology of conformity highlight a majority of the songs within the album, as well as the need of individuality and identity. Popular songs such as Self Control, Nights, Pink + White, and Ivy, all had amazing lyrics and production that accompanied the underlying and overlooked themes and messages. However, there is perhaps no deeper song on this entire project than Seigfried, a song that amazingly embodies every single theme on the album in 5 minutes and 35 seconds. In perhaps his magnum opus, Frank Ocean brilliantly uses the characteristic minimalist instrumentals and production to create a haunting and lonely ambiance that guides the listener through the tear-jerking life of Frank Ocean himself. He describes the difficulty of love, sexual identity, depression, suicide, independence from the norm, and the inherent need to conform to the societal definition of a ‘good life.’

“I’m living over city
And taking in the homeless sometimes

Been living in an idea
An idea from another man’s mind

Maybe I’m a fool
To settle for a place with some nice views
Maybe I should move
Settle down, two kids and a swimming pool

I’m not brave
I’d rather live outside
I’d rather live outside
I’d rather go to jail

I’ve tried hell

It is a song that we can all relate to, especially when we are young adults, in the crossroads of our life and future. The future is a scary concept to think about. The thought of failure is a constant fear to many people, including myself. Should we just settle down, with two kids and a swimming pool? Or should we just simply live outside? Should we live in a foreign idea? Implanted by our parents or our peers? Or would we rather go to jail, or even hell to escape these thoughts and goals?

Frank Ocean is not just writing some basic philosophy or trying to preach some over-utilized message towards his audience. He is instead using his own life to bring to light problems that we will inevitably encounter throughout our entire lives. We will all had our heart broken. We will all want to go back into the past and relive our days as children. We will all feel the bittersweet wave of nostalgia. We will all be sad at one point in our lives. We will all search for our identity. And we will all ultimately find out who we really are.

Because of the culmination of lyricism, production, messages, and themes, that this album provides, I have to say that this album has exceeded my expectations ten-fold. I initially stated that this album was forgettable and not nearly as good as Channel Orange when it first released. However, I can now say with confidence, that Frank Ocean’s Blonde is a complete masterpiece. This is the type of album that will be played generations later, with our great-grandchildren still being able to relate to and enjoy the beautiful music that Frank Ocean was able to formulate.

Just over 10 years ago, Frank Ocean was working at a Subway restaurant and an AT&T store in New Orleans in order to rent studio time. And now, he has created a landmark album in R&B, Pop, and in music as well.

10/10

Favorite Songs: Nikes, Ivy, Pink + White, Skyline To, Self Control, Nights, Solo (Reprise), Close to You, White Ferrari, Seigfried, Godspeed

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