Frank Ocean — Blonde
Frank Ocean strung us along until we lost hope. Then he blew us all away.
It started with the now famous “I got twooooo versions” Instagram post, which carried that caption, the tag July 2015, a simple photo, and nothing else. Ocean left the door open for us to take whatever we wanted out of that post and boy, did we ever.
Suddenly Frank Ocean’s highly anticipated follow up to 2012’s beautiful Channel Orange became a need, not a want. The hype shifted into overdrive like no album I can remember. The tension was like a kid waiting for a present in the mail, except all of America’s pop music consumers were the kid and the present never came. July 2015 came and went with no Frank album. People freaked out. Some threatened not to listen to the album whenever it actually arrived, so deep was Ocean’s perceived betrayal.
A year passed. We moved on but never totally forgot. When another Instagram post dropped another small clue, we were held hostage for another July. Then July ended with no album. Then came the drop dead August 5 release date. We felt duped, betrayed, intrigued and desperate. Certainly some wondered — as, honestly, I did — that this was all the point. I thought maybe Frank Ocean was subverting the new record culture (drop an album when nobody knows to want it), with something new entirely — a promised album that never comes. Promise without reward.
The wait finally ended Thursday night. We got a bizarre but beautiful “visual album,” Endless. It was just the appetizer — Saturday night came Blonde, the follow up delivered a year after it was first promised.
And yet, it was worth the wait. Blonde is so good — so inventive, so beautiful, so creative — that it repurposes the phrase “worth the wait”. Culturally, no recent album has been so desired, so hyped, and eventually so fulfilling. So lets get that out of the way here.
But appreciating Blonde takes more than the album’s 60 minutes and 17 tracks. Let’s remember how we got here. Frank Ocean carried a world’s weight of expectations on the strength of Channel Orange. It felt like a momentous album at the time — it seemed like everybody within a 15-year age range listened to at least part of it — but the obsessive tracking of Ocean’s release of Blonde tells you everything about how meaningful Channel Orange was. The wait for Ocean’s follow up was almost more interesting than wondering what Ocean’s album would sound like.
Channel Orange arrived in July 2012 and sucked all the oxygen out of the music scene. It arrived at a strange time in American culture, where vulnerability and anxiety had become staples in music. Barack Obama was running for his second term, and it was apparent that he, like his supporters, was weary from the promises lost in his first term. In case more evidence is needed, Drake had staked his claim as one of rap’s signature stars with Take Care just a year earlier, partly on the strength of his brand of needy, petty, inexplicably relatable music.
Nobody tapped into that sense of need and anxiety better than Ocean. His work on Channel Orange was a unique brand of emotional expression, centering on themes such as disillusionment, listlessness, isolation and, most wrenchingly, unrequited love.
None of those themes were new, of course — they’ve been the backbone of music for a while. But Ocean set himself apart for two reasons. One was his musical excellence — which we’ll get to shortly — but the other was how easy it was for listeners to project their feelings onto his music. Part of Ocean’s appeal has always been his mystery, that even after his time in public consciousness, we still don’t really know anything about him. For somebody that bares his soul to his audience, he’s been able to make his problems our problems.
Consider, “Thinking About You,” the heart-shredding track that kicks off Channel Orange. Ocean sings about his first love, and his first loss, in terms that are both richly detailed but never so specific that the story is unique to him. He provides a beautiful picture that anybody can make their own.
I say this from experience. Channel Orange dropped the summer after my freshman year, and though the album itself came in late July, the prominence of his three lead singles made it the Summer of Frank, in a way. I was working as a server in a seafood restaurant in a mall — a classic summer job — and I spent the precious hours I had between double shifts hanging around a fancy mall and listening to Frank Ocean. To me, that album is all about how being young can be hopeful and terrifying, exhilarating and heartbreaking, a study in how having everything in front of you can be the same as having nothing in hand.
I can’t say this for sure, but I’m willing to bet that Channel Orange resonated with millions of people in the exact same way it resonated with me. Their stories were different, but for a while we all had the same soundtrack. When I think about the longing people showed in anticipation of Ocean’s second album, it brings me back to the way I felt listening to Orange four years ago. So much has changed since then, and Ocean has been nowhere to be found through all of it. We didn’t just want an update, we needed it. Those were enormous expectations for Ocean, and the only question was whether he would deliver.
Which brings us to Blonde. It’s not just one of the year’s best albums; like last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s a landmark work from a generational talent at the absolute peak of his powers. Channel Orange was outstanding in its own right and at times rough around the edges by design. On Blonde, however, Ocean has taken a laser and shaved off every tiny imperfection. Even more so than its predecessor, which was the best type of aimless and indirect, Blonde’s sharp creative turns feel like perfectly constructed artistic choices from a master of album building.
Ocean hits a bull’s-eye immediately with “Nikes,” Blonde’s enrapturing opener. With its humming beat and lush, tranquil melodic pulse, it almost feels like being gently pulled under water. When Ocean’s vocal comes in with a surprising, strained distortion, it completes the effect. By the time we hear Ocean’s real voice — distinct and pleasant as ever — the song is nearly over and the message is sent: this album will be like nothing you’ve ever heard.
And Ocean keeps the bar at that height over Blonde’s 17 tracks. The album is, first and foremost, a triumphant return for Ocean, whose musical style has been missing from our lives for far too long. It’s partly due to his voice, which has only gotten better with maturity — his vocals are so beautiful, but in a way that no other singer can perform. He can tear a heartstring with a single word and enrapture an audience of millions with a soulful flourish. He sounds like no artist before or since, with a brand of futuristic, jazz-infused R&B that only he has the talent and vision to foresee. Ocean has a dozen distinct styles at his disposal on the album, and just when it seems like the album is settling into a predicable rhythm, he switches things up.
Ocean’s most striking improvement on Blonde is how he’s combined his musical styling and lyrics to paint vivid imagery with every track. “Pink + White,” uses a jangling jazz piano to paint a picture of connection in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “Night,” glitters and rings with the sparkle of city lights as Ocean takes us on a night out. “White Ferrari,” strips out all the musical flourishes and frames the movement through love, loss and regret as a heartbreaking spiritual journey.
These are just the highlights of a wonderful second album. Listeners are pulled through a gorgeous world inside Ocean’s mind, led from place to place in his memory, each recollection a vividly realized story. Just like on Channel Orange, Ocean is still fearful of isolation, but he’s bolder than before in his pursuit of connection.
The need for connection is the foundation of modern music, as we’ve learned from Drake’s whole career. But Ocean has contextualized that need in a more satisfying way than his peers. He seems, on Blonde, to view connection and love as the means to a higher truth and a type of spiritualism, a certain power that binds us together. That pursuit isn’t exclusively about his self-fulfillment — with his vivid imagery and abstract storytelling, he enables us to project our stories, our struggles, our hopes onto his music. His journey is our journey.
Blonde is a clear reminder that universal resonance has always been the key with Frank Ocean. I felt that way when I was a 19-year-old listening to Channel Orange in the mall, wondering how somebody with such a different life could make music that seemed so tailored to me. I feel that way again with Blonde; it restores my understanding that so many of us are just chasing the same feelings and held by the same fears. We all can share Ocean’s music and fill it with our own experiences. That’s why he, in a way unlike any other star, belongs to all of us.
While the waiting got interminable at times, we should feel grateful Frank Ocean came back. We needed him.
Essential Tracks: “Nikes,” “Pink+White,” “White Ferrari”