Frank Ocean makes your daydream come true
After days that turned into weeks that turned into months that turned into years of speculation, preposterous rumor swirling and intense crescendo of a pent-up disappointment of watching a live stream of a carpentry shop, the new Frank Ocean is finally here. No, it’s not Endless, a visual orchestra of disjointed sounds, more a musical poem to the chaotic world than an album, it’s Blonde, or the album formerly know as Boys Don’t Cry. There is a lot to unpack here and I suspect we will be at it for days, weeks, months… years. A testament to the craft of an artist who said fuck it and worked really hard at what he is really good at to deliver what feels, sounds and stays in your memory like a masterpiece would. It’s already an album of the year, but it can and probably will be so much more.
Four tracks into the album we arrive at “Be Yourself,” a poignant message for the modern musical landscape and in many ways a microcosm of Frank’s career in a midst of a monochromatic musical landscape. Before Frank’s mother (?) launches into a diatribe on weedheads and drugs (which makes the beginning of “Solo” even more poetic) she delivers the most important lines anyone will ever have to hear: “stop trying to be somebody else // don’t try to be someone else // be yourself // and know that that’s good enough // don’t try to be someone else // don’t try to act like someone else // be yourself // be secure with yourself // rely and trust your own decisions // on your own beliefs.” As the message veers off into drugs, we are left with this lingering feeling of emptiness and individuality. In the modern world of carbon copies and social media we have driven ourselves to become “the other.” It’s reflected across everything we do. Our lives have become walking amalgamations of distant algorithms of people we think we’re supposed to be. A misshapen American Nightmare. This is where Blonde shines. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Even from Frank himself. It shows that it’s okay to be different.
All of that and about an interlude. So let’s maybe get to the album.
“Nikes” is where Blonde arrives, it’s here. It’s not a joke. It’s not Detox. It’s not Chinese Democracy. It’s here, and in a rare example in modern culture, it was worth every micro-second we have spent in agonizing disbelief that it will ever come out. Thick as syrup, “Nikes” sludges right into it. It’s a mellow, slow, wobbly entrance from the reigning champion. It’s an arrival unlike any other, both mellower and heavier than anything on Endless or anything that came before. At times reflective of the modern tropes (“these bitches want Nikes // they looking for a check // tell ’em it ain’t likely”) it arrives at focused and melancholic understanding of the present world that is not funny at all (“Pour it up for A$AP // RIP to Pimp C // RIP Trayvon // That n***a looked just like me”). Like most of Frank Ocean’s music “Nikes” pushes the needle to both extremes of your emotional barometer before arriving at the classic Frank ending, dripped in falsetto and love notes.
We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you
I’m not him, but I’ll mean something to you.
A lot of Blonde is perfectly and distinctly apologetic from Frank. The understanding of his place in time and space that is almost transcendent of the music. The rare not false modesty of a man confused about himself and the world when the world seems perfectly sure he belongs on a pedestal. This echos down on “Futura Free”
They payin’ me, Mama
I should be payin’ them
I should be payin’ y’all, honest to god
I’m just a guy, I’m not a god
Sometimes I feel like I’m a god
But I’m not a god
If I was, I don’t know which heaven would have me, Mama
“Ivy” croons, like most of Blonde, it finds a delicate balance of sad and happy, melancholy and jubilation. Blonde makes you feel your most broken, laying bare the fractures across your emotions, but it also makes you feel that it’s okay to be that way. It’s okay to be you. It’s a 17 track long love song first and foremost to yourself, whoever it is you happen to be.
Like most of the first half of the album “Ivy” is unmistakably Frank. Conflictingly emotional yet jovial. Unassuming.
All the things I didn’t mean to say
I didn’t mean to do
There were things you didn’t mean to say
You didn’t need to… need to.
He carries that energy into “Pink + White, wrapping it into a casual back up vocal performance by none other than Beyonce. It takes and gives as a save the last dance moment and you know who you’re saving it for.
Frank is nothing if not earnest across the record, but when he arrives at “Solo” he knows he has you, he has us all. Asking someone to pick a favourite song on Blonde is like asking a parent to pick a favourite child. Everyone knows you have one, but you don’t want to offend the other and maybe they even have some hidden talents. Like what if they make it to the NBA and they’re your second favourite. For me that song is “Solo.” Maybe because it caught me in a middle of my own emotional tailspin, but that can only be the half of it. Music is the universal emotional amplifier, but great music stands alone in constructing feeling out of thin air and into your non-dramatic existence.
The track is at its best when it lays everything bare, and “Solo” holds nothing back. It starts as an emotional apology to “Be Yourself” in the most ironic way possible. And then it opens up. Frank’s voice juxtaposed to a bare organ, as close to an honest to God religious epiphany as you will come on a track (sorry Chance). He builds these walls and then he tears them down at the chorus.
It’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire
Inhale, inhale, there’s heaven
There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky
Inhale, inhale, there’s heaven
If you hit it just at the right cadence, “inhale” begins to sound just like “in hell” and that’s infinitely more poetic and infinitely more Frank Ocean so you can be forgiven for taking that interpretation to heart. He unpacks human longing and desire and folds it neatly into concepts of solitary existence. It’s a poetic tour de force that feels exactly what it sounds like.
I wanted that act right in Colorado that night
I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you
Stayed up ’til my phone died, smoking big, rolling solo
I remember I stayed up once until my phone died Frank. You built a box that night.
He masterfully hides Kendrick behind his thoughts of “Skyline To.” Much like Beyonce, his presence is wrapped in a blurry, hazy of psychedelic jazzy beats. It evaporates into the fluid poetry of the song itself. He might not even be there. You might forget he’s here, but the solitary moment you’re remind it of it, you are reminded of the beauty and intricacy in the production of each track.
As the album progresses, things get deeper. The first half of Blonde is melodic and straight. It is full of hauntingly beautiful love ballads to the world, to himself and to you. As we do get to the entree the things get weirder, they get get darker and they get denser. By the time we hear Andre 3000 on the reprise of “Solo” we have gone down the rabbit hole. And yet, Andre manages to hit on the same notes and themes of being lost and alone in a world full of people.
After 20 years in
I’m so naive I was under the impression that everyone wrote they own verses
It’s comin’ back different and yea that shit hurts me
I’m hummin’ and whistlin’ to those not deserving
I’m stumbled and lived every word, was I working just way too hard?
This half of the album is full of distortion, slight nudging of the melody off key and technology pushing Frank’s own vocals into the uncanny valley for a second. It all seems just a fraction of a second off-beat, and yet, somehow perfectly in tune. The second half is a deep journey. While the first feels like a slight breeze and hints of refreshing rain on a summer day, the second half “feel like a quaalude.”
Blonde manages to pack musical history and talent into a 17 track album that is a love letter to both the craft and the world. No matter what he’s talking about at any given moment, the feeling that he’s talking about someone, just one someone, or many someones… That feeling is inescapable.
I care for you still and I will forever
That was my part of the deal, honest
We got so familiar
He bellows on “White Ferrari” as we close in on a bit of musical history from the Beatles “Here, There and Everywhere” as it bleeds into “Seigfreid.” It’s a beautiful medley that gets deeper with every listen. You learn to appreciate the subtleties of where, when and how each track proceeds to submerge itself into the next. Then you start to wonder why.
The art of subtlety escapes modern music. It’s very straight forward for the most part devoid of any intrigue. The contemporary idea of emotional resonance is playing empty voice-mails from one night stands ad nauseam between tracks and pretending that it has the capacity to impress. Blonde does not shy away from drawing you with the exact opposite. It wants you to listen to the words and the melodies closely. It needs you to do so to appreciate the art.
The building up echoes throughout but never really culminates in a booming crescendo, it lets you down slowly, beautifully with the progression of the last three tracks into the nine minute epilogue of “Futura Free.” The sounds area always just a bit low tone, never threatening to drown out or overpower the emotional crooning of the author. It’s a beautiful tandem of note and pitch.
There is depth here, and your favourite song on the album may change the deeper you go down the path hand in hand with Blonde, but it is not the album that is meant for a sporadic experience. It builds itself up for isolated emergence, for a chance for Frank to talk to you and for you to talk to someone else. In its entirety it feels like a meaningful conversation with a long lost friend by a fireplace. The one you didn’t even realize you have spent the past 6 hours talking into the dead of night. You talk about everything, private or personal, this is you versus your emotional doppelganger. Welcome back Frank, thank you for showing us music can make us feel again.
The most incredible thing about Blonde is how it latches onto your emotional state of being. It manages to extract the subtleties of your current disposition and unravel it thread by thread. When I first heard the album, about 40 play throughs ago (I shit you not), I attached myself to Solo as a portrait of my current self. I sunk deep into it and let it float me. Now, now I’m way onto Nights. The record comes from a place of emotional warmth and I believe Nights will give way to something else (probably White Ferrari), but it is a mark of artistic genius to be able to distill the human condition on so many levels.