After a 4-year hiatus since his debut album, Channel Orange, hip hop crooner Frank Ocean has released his sophomore effort entitled Blonde. The album can be streamed on Apple music right now; meanwhile everyone else will have to buy it on iTunes or wait for its universal release, which will hopefully happen in about a week.
Frank Ocean has come a long way since the success of his first mixtape release, nostalgia, ULTRA. Since then, he has written a letter describing his sexual relations with another man, released a major studio album that climbed to number 2 on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy, and featured on the likes of Watch the Throne, Yeezus, Beyonce, Doris, and John Mayer’s Paradise Valley. Despite these life-transforming events, Frank has remained largely out of the spotlight for the better part of the the last four years. Suddenly his reclusive lifestyle bursts into color on Blonde; the details of his pain, suffering, and search for redemption are beautiful and concise, but also overwhelming. Blonde builds upon its predecessors, creating a more intensely self-centered project that finds the singer conflicted in a binge of drug wave emotions related to a past relationship(s). It’s the most radiant emo album ever made.
This album is not for everyone. Even people that really liked Channel Orange might be perplexed by the more reflective and darker themes that fill Blonde. It draws comparison to Kendrick Lamar’s recent To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB); neither album caters to the average their average listener. Neither will be played at parties (okay, except King Kunta) – and their relentless poignancy doesn’t really make for good background music either. Since both are reflective in nature, they demand in-depth, repeated listens, making them more of an experience than a “listen.” Kendrick and Frank have both offered albums that require patience, openness, and even sacrifice by their audiences. With such high levels of personal investment into themes of race, gender, sex, depression, permanent loss, and mortality on Frank’s Blonde, he makes it impossible to listen through and appreciate the music without investing yourself in each song. Therein lies much of the ingenuity unique both albums, and particularly Blonde
With an almost tortured mood at times that is perpetuated by an all-consuming tornado of drugs (weed, shrooms, pills, and “white”), the songs become dreamy and ethereal. It’s actually hard to think of a song on the album that doesn’t have overt references to smoking weed. The drug-infused lyrics parallel the musical direction that Frank takes this album. He finds himself in a sea of drug-wave synths, heavy guitar, soft piano grooves, and endlessly layered vocals often reminiscent of Bon Iver. The album floats on drug-infused melodies, while Frank attempts to balance between irreverence and agony as he wrestles with overcoming a long-lost relationship. His agony peaks in the standout track, Self Control; a minimalist song that drifts over subtle, choppy guitar chords. In a defeated tone, the chorus whispers: “Keep a place for me, I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.” No matter how distant Frank becomes from his past love, he cannot escape the desire to be a part of what once was. Then the auto tuned outro culminates into the peak moment of agony on the album. He sings “I know you gotta leave leave leave, take down some summer time, can you give up just a night? I know you got someone coming, spitting game.” His relationship from the past haunts his thoughts, and is the clear nucleus of everything happening on Blonde
In Channel Orange, Frank spent much of the album telling stories and crafting narratives about other characters, which let us understand more about his surrounding environment – the things he observes and the people making impressions on him. There’s the junkie in Pilot Jones, the crack-addict in Crack Rock, the super rich kids in Super Rich Kids, the rich protagonist with the landscaper and housekeeper in Sweet Life, and of course Cleopatra in Pyramids. This world Frank is observing, and then describing, is a little more contained – it can be defined, put into boxes, and packaged as linear stories. In contrast, on Blonde, we are inside of Frank’s head, revolving around this nuclear relationship from his past, and shocked with spontaneous jolts of nostalgia. The listener doesn’t have the luxury of conclusiveness or forgiveness on Blonde, in contrast to Channel Orange. The retrospective lens of Blonde aims to highlight the sensory infinite of our past and proves that nothing is linear. There’s no plot on Blonde; no sort of chronological progression that leads to a concrete present reality – only by reconciling with the past can one be satisfied.
By focusing on such a specific experience in his life, he is able to construct his thoughts in all sorts of musical dimensions. Rather than a collection of isolated themes, the songs and skits on this album are all redirected to one defining moment, allowing for maximum exposure. Throughout Blonde, Frank alludes to the crucial differences between himself and an ex-partner. In the end of the brilliant White Ferrari, he sings, “Im sure we’re taller in another dimension, you say we’re small and not worth the mention…You dream of walls that hold us in prison, It’s just a scar, at least that’s what they call it, and we’re free to roam.” These are some of the most thoughtful lyrics on the album – really cutting to the core of a fundamental and insurmountable disagreement between two people. Then in the next song, Seigfried, Frank immediately questions himself. “Maybe I should settle, two kids and a swimming pool – I’m not brave!” This is one of the most conflicted moments in the album, when he thinks about what could be if he were to give up all of his values and conform to “an idea from another man’s mind.”
Believe it or not, hidden amongst the heaviness of the album are moments of acute dark humor. To me, Frank Ocean’s lyrics have always been the most riveting aspect of his music – and I think some of the most progressive and innovative lyrics that the long-plateauing R&B genre has ever seen. Not only because they are clever, original, and articulate – but because they are actually really funny. His jokes are never served as emphatic punchlines or accompanied with a derisive chuckle – instead, they are fully integrated and slyly understated. The first track on the album, Nikes, hits you with a Carmelo Anthony diss in the first minute: “She wants a ring like Carmelooo” he echos, poking fun at both materialism and NBA player Carmelo Anthony’s career. Then on Solo, he juxtaposes weed and oral sex in a hilariously irreverent jab: “More trees to blow through, but you blow me, and I owe you, two grams when the sunrise.” The final track, Futura Free, is the most confident, self-assured and dare I say optimistic tone that Frank commands on the entire album (interesting to note that Earl also ended his dreary Doris on a similar sky-high note). It is also the most straight-forward rapping he does on the album, and it finally sounds like he’s enjoying himself when he says lines like the following: “Menage on my birthday, tap out on the first stroke cause this ain’t no work day, she don’t give head anyway.”
Blonde has a whole lot to unpack if you didn’t get that by now. One of the most fascinating concepts on the album is the use of gendered language, and how Frank bounces back and forth between talking about men and women in a sexualized and romantic way. The album title itself, Blonde, is androgynous by nature. This sort of fluidity of language is spontaneous and unbridled; it’s entirely unique to this album. While there’s a lot that is left unanswered at the end of the album, there is nothing we are left asking. Frank introduced us to a paradoxical world that is both ephemeral and permanent at the same time.
(side note: I couldn’t finish this piece without listening to his dope verse on Sunday)