BLONDE by Frank Ocean
Favorite Tracks: “Nikes,” “Solo,” “Self Control,” “Nights,” “Solo (Reprise),” “Seigfried”
The very last words we hear on BLONDE, Frank Ocean’s third full-length album, are: “How far is a light year? How far is a light year?” Well, technically it’s nearly six trillion miles (which is the distance on a timeline between Ocean’s last album, CHANNEL ORANGE, and now). But to ask the question twice seems to posit an answer that may come from a deeper rhetorical level, and we all know Ocean is not the type to serve us that which lives solely on the surface. If this point is not made clear by his own music, then it must be obvious by his actions.
Following the 2012 release of CHANNEL ORANGE, Ocean has notoriously spent the last few years basically in hiding, but casual fans and committed r/FrankOcean lurkers alike knew well enough from his mysterious Tumblr posts and the occasional collaboration with artists like Beyonce, Kanye West, and James Blake that he may be out of sight, but definitely not out of mind. Given the huge success of CHANNEL ORANGE, and because these fully-produced collaborations were the only credible insight into the sound of his activities besides the rough demo “Memrise” and some shoddy fan recordings from outside of a listening party, Ocean enthusiasts could only imagine his next work(s) to reach an even higher pinnacle than before.
As someone who religiously checked the Frank Ocean Subreddit every day last July when the album was originally announced to be released, I found myself in hyperventilation the minute he posted the cryptic library due date slip on his website this summer. July 31st drew closer and closer, and suddenly war flashbacks became a frequent reminder of the emotional betrayal felt last summer. The live stream which began on August 1st was a beacon of hope, but then as the activity on the video died down, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What are we all expecting? And will this emotional roller coaster even be worth it in the end? Yes, I have a huge capacity for dramatic existentialism. But, sadly, I realized that we were all kind of expecting another CHANNEL ORANGE, which would certainly be impossible given its unique combination of perfectly curated characteristics — pop accessibility, seamless exploration of genres, narrative cohesion, effortlessly beautiful vocals, evocative lyrics, and a strong, poignant thesis, to say the least.
So, before ENDLESS debuted, I had to struggle with the next question: How do we absorb what comes next without being disappointed by the fact that it’s not CHANNEL ORANGE? Indeed, it seems to be a valid question for those who have not-so-patiently awaited a new Ocean album for the past four years, and the answer must surely lie in the reason we are so attracted to his artistry in the first place — he’s got soul. Having drawn comparisons to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Erykah Badu, and R. Kelly, it’s safe to walk into BLONDE with this one expectation above all others, and perhaps this expectation should be the foundation upon which we consume his latest work.
If there is a scene to be set while listening to BLONDE, it’s in the front seat of Ocean’s BMW E30, racing through the Los Angeles valley deep into the night. On the dark road, the lights lining the streets blur into shooting stars and suddenly your mind is purging itself of all the littlest memories which seem to have made up the summers of your youth. On CHANNEL ORANGE, Ocean masterfully crafted lyrics out of his own experiences and then filtered them through narrative stories that appeared to tune in and out of a radio of memoirs. BLONDE is much more stripped back; the TV fuzz remains (because such is the nature of recollection), though Ocean no longer screens these memories under the guise of fantasy.
In the opening track, “Nikes,” we hear both higher-pitched and regular-pitched versions of Ocean’s voice (remember, he’s “got twooo versions…”). Right away, the fact that the album cover is stylized as BLOND though the Apple Music title is BLONDE suggests a duality, perhaps in reference to Ocean’s own bisexuality, or just that our memories are never quite true to reality. If the case stands with the latter, then it makes sense for Ocean to ruminate in “Ivy,” “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me,” while also admitting, “Everything sucked back then.” Not only are the lyrics straightforwardly confessional, but the instrumentation is extremely minimal with just a dreamy, bedroom pop guitar accompanying Ocean’s smooth voice — until the very end of the track, when his voice pitches upwards and angrily distorts. Suddenly we hear him knocking over studio equipment, and that’s when we realize how painful it is for him to realize, “We’ll never be those kids again.”
“Ivy” is only one example of the many songs on BLONDE that solely feature Ocean’s voice and a singular instrument, whether it be electric guitar in “Skyline To” and “Self Control,” a mellow organ on “Solo,” or a pensive synth on “White Ferrari” and “Godspeed.” Despite the many collaborators apparently in the credits, it’s almost puzzling hearing such a minimalist record from Ocean, with very few moments of the lush layering and instrumental swelling that were oft highlights of CHANNEL ORANGE. Such an approach focuses the attention on Ocean’s immaculate vocal chops and emotional lyricism instead. However, when the lyrics fall short from shallowness or vague stream-of-consciousness, we might as well be listening to an Adele album. This is not to discredit the strength in Ocean’s (or Adele’s) vocal capabilities, but Ocean has proven to listeners before that he has something to say, and it’s a disappointment to walk away from BLONDE without taking away any clear lyrical motives or theses, and rather feel that it at times bordered on cheesiness. He explores the usual topics, such as sex (“Self Control”), drugs (“Solo”), hedonism (“Nikes”), and growing out of youth (“Godspeed”), but the album as a whole lacks a cohesive narration beyond Ocean simply getting lost in his thoughts.
We know Ocean quite well as a singer, but some of the most exciting moments on the album are when he raps, such as after the slow-grind crooning on “Nikes.” In particular, the track “Nights” is a catchy, two-part song on the album which at first features a simple drum beat knocking behind a metallic, lo-fi guitar aggregation and a sing-rap perhaps describing a drug-infused interaction with a lover from his past. Thoughtfully, “Nights” is in the very middle of the album, and the second movement of the song takes on a slower, quieter R&B vibe. The pitched-up voice comes in singing, “Every night fucks every day up / Every day patches the night up,” and from here we know the night is almost over, the drug haze is lifting, and Ocean is wishing to isolate himself from the emotional stress and attachment and take a “cheap vacation” with his weed once again (even after his own mother has cautioned against becoming “sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned” from marijuana use in “Be Yourself”).
“Nights” is followed by another outstanding track, “Solo (Reprise),” rapped solely by previous CHANNEL ORANGE collaborator Andre 3000. Andre’s flow is quick and rhythmic on top of minor key piano chords. The angst escalates into “Pretty Sweet,” which is the only other upbeat song on the album next to “Pink + White.” Unfortunately, this half of the album proves sonically underwhelming, and maybe not just because the “Facebook Story” skit leaves such a bland, pointless taste in your mouth. “Close to You” has clear James Blake influence with signature vocoder effects, a muted R&B beat, and occasional flashes of synth, and while this track is enjoyable, it ends before it has the opportunity to take the listener anywhere special so that you’re blue-balled by the time “White Ferrari” plays next. “White Ferrari” has layered vocal drama near the end of the song, but beyond this short climax, it feels just like another sleepy ballad with no new commentary. “Seigfried” follows in the same vein, although it arguably does a bit more with its five minutes than its predecessor with echoed vocals, evocative lyrics, and familiar lo-fi guitar strumming that lead into the occasional electronic ornamentation and a scintillatingly cinematic string section before hollowing out into a chamber of lucid dreaming.
How far is a light year? The superficial listener will simply say Frank Ocean has a lot on his mind, but if BLONDE can teach us anything, it’s that there is catharsis in nostalgia. It’s not CHANNEL ORANGE — it can’t be. However, after years of anticipating new full-length work from Ocean while he’s been undercover, it’s refreshing simply to hear a record that is so outwardly personal, vocally expressive, and still peppered with beautiful moments that can appeal to all kinds of listeners, because the delivery of his soul tends to make up for the weaknesses in production and songwriting heard on this record. In the album’s last track, “Futura Free,” Ocean raps, “Sometimes I feel like a god, but I’m not a god,” a moment of humbling for Ocean as he realizes all he’s accomplished in life through thick and thin. BLONDE invites us to question how far we have come, and how far we can go, and hopefully Frank Ocean sticks around to contemplate these questions again in the future with an even more mature identity, personally and musically.