Frank Ocean’s Blonde Is An Instant Classic That Gets Better With Every Listen
Surely, you’re familiar with the narrative by now. Frank Ocean has harnessed a peak level of hype that’s only rivaled by musicians with much deeper catalogs, bigger hits, reputations that span wider. But after a lengthy hiatus, he’s back.
He dropped a critically lauded major-label debut back in 2012 (Channel Orange). Then he became a recluse who seemed to be traveling the Lauryn Hill trajectory. We were waiting for him to turn up during a reboot of MTV Unplugged and tearfully claw his way through two hours of never-heard-before material. But alas, for the last year, fans and the media have been speculating about the release of his follow-up after a cryptic Tumblr picture in which he was photographed with two magazines titled Boys Don’t Cry.
For the next 365 days after that Tumblr photo, everyone, including the New York Times, took part in the guessing game. NYT even went as far as saying the album would drop on August 5. It didn’t. But a livestream of a warehouse construction space started via Apple Music. Then two weeks later, Endless, a 45-minute visual album dropped. 24 hours later, the glittery, spastic visual for “Nikes” dropped. Then 24 hours after that, Blonde popped up on Apple Music and in four pop-up shops across the country. Those pop-ups were handing out Boys Don’t Cry for free along with an alternate physical version of Blonde.
The lead up to the album has been chock full of anticipation and great humor thanks to Black Twitter. Now, it’s here. Was it worth the wait?
"In order to truly appreciate Blonde, you have to throw out everything you know about pop music. ou’ll probably need to listen 3 or 4 times before you can fully differentiate between and understand each song."
In order to truly appreciate Blonde, you have to throw out everything you know about pop music. This isn’t bland like the upper echelon of Billboard’s Top 40. There aren’t obvious hooks that you’ll be humming for hours after your first listen. You’ll probably need to listen 3 or 4 times before you can fully differentiate between and understand each song. This is music that forces you to become an advanced listener. The achievement in and of itself is pretty extraordinary. That an artist can force an entire population of people to reimagine the way they listen to music. Frank is part of a group of artists who are forcing us to consume music in new ways. And hear new things.
For all the people who weren’t familiar with Frank Ocean, but kept seeing all the news stories and trending topics, they likely won’t be pulled to the other side by this record. It’s not exactly polarizing, but it’s also not an instant hit. It takes time to digest. It goes down easier with a pre-existing knowledge of Frank’s work.
On the surface, Blonde is not as accessible or straightforward as Channel Orange. There’s no sweeping emotional high stakes like “Bad Religion”. Or overt social critique like “Super Rich Kids”. There’s less role playing. There’s more Frank.
Blonde is far more understated, burying meaning in its every turn. Using A-list talent (Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000) as supporting players. An indication of Frank’s belief in his talent and message.
The album was proceeded by Endless, a 45-minute static, short film featuring what sounds like demos, clips, ideas. It’s lush and beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying compared to everything else in Frank’s catalog. However, it was a sample of the stripped down blend of pop, R&B, and electronic music that lay ahead.
This is emo music for black kids. It’s confessional, honest, abstract. Frank is truly unique. A black R&B artist deeply entrenched in hip hop who sings about loving other men, who wears mascara in his videos (the ethereal clip for “Nikes”), who challenges the typical African-American alpha male ethos. In a sense, Miguel does the same thing. And while he’s experienced more chart success than Ocean, he’s become more a niche outsider, unable to connect with such a huge audience.
Though it’s pretty unheard of for a relatively new artist to wait four years to release an album, it was worth the wait. The defining records of this year (ANTI, The Life of Pablo, LEMONADE) were all notable because of their unconventional release strategies and career-defining statements. The music was strong but they didn’t communicate the emotional depth that Ocean does here.
"Frank is truly unique. A black R&B artist deeply entrenched in hip hop who sings about loving other men, who wears mascara in his videos, who challenges the typical African-American alpha male ethos."
The sizzurp-fueled, half-time beat of “Nikes” is the perfect head bobbing backing track for a discombobulated mix of lyrics about commercialism, society, and love. “RIP Trayvon-that nigga look just like me”-a powerful realization, that a wildly famous, queer black man isn’t immune from the racial struggles taking place across America. Even though Frank sings three quarters of “Nikes” in a digitally altered, high pitch, that line still packs an emotional punch.
Perhaps that’s the feeling of much of the record. Even though…but. Despite its flaws, the overall objective is still delivered.
Even though “Solo (Reprise)” makes us yearn for a new Andre 3000 project or at least a whole song’s worth of his presence, the rapid fire knowledge he spits in one minute and 18 seconds is still some of the best rap of 2016.
Even though Beyoncé only adds wordless backing vocals on “Pink + White”, the song is still emotionally gripping. As it enters its second minute, it packs on the vocal and instrumental layers and builds up to a gorgeous climax. “It’s all downhill from here,” he sings. But on this song, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“'RIP Trayvon-that nigga look just like me'-a powerful realization, that a wildly famous, queer black man isn’t immune from the racial struggles taking place across America."
Where we only found Frank openly singing about his sexuality on two tracks from Channel Orange (“Forrest Gump” and “Bad Religion”), here his love of men and women is painted all over the album. “Here’s to the gay bar you took me to. Is when I realized you talk so much more than I do.” he sings on “Good Guy”.
He attempts to reconcile his spirituality and sexuality on “Godspeed” “Wishing you Godspeed, glory, there will be mountains you won’t move, still I’ll always be there for you.” Later he sings, “It’s a free world.” Kim Burrell fleshes out the song’s spirit with soulful backing vocals. It’s one of the few songs where Frank’s voice isn’t digitally altered. Instead, it’s fully emotive and raw.
Many of the songs are exercises in restraint: the distorted electric guitar of “Skyline To” (with emphasis from Kendrick Lamar on certain words), the acoustic guitar and singer/songwriter feel of “Ivy”. “Pretty Sweet” comes crashing in with a mix of distorted stereo noise and heavily reverbed harmonies before transitioning into a soft blast of uptempo electropop.
Like “Endless”, Blonde is meant to be consumed as a whole. It’s not nearly as distinguishable when divided in parts. “Nikes” is the most accessible thing here. For such a mainstream artist, this album couldn’t be further away from the radio. It’s self-indulgent. It sounds like Frank is exploring his mind, his feelings, his favorite sounds, and he’s just brought us along for the ride. It plays out more like a mixtape. A statement of where he is at the moment.
Small interludes are woven through the album. “Be Yourself” is a voicemail from Frank’s mom in which she warns of the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction while away at college. “Facebook Story” finds producer SebastiAn lamenting about a relationship that ended after he wouldn’t add his girlfriend on Facebook. Both build on themes of the effects that fear and digital devices have on our lives.
Frank doesn’t linger in these moments too long. Some songs don’t even hit the two-minute mark. Others stretch to almost six minutes. Each song packs in movements, abrupt shifts, changes. At 17 tracks long, it doesn’t feel bloated or excessive. It almost doesn’t feel long enough.
"It’s a remarkable work of art. Impeccably sung, emotion dripping from every note and lyric. Layered with live instruments and digital flourishes, plush harmonies."
It’s a remarkable work of art. Impeccably sung, emotion dripping from every note and lyric. Layered with live instruments and digital flourishes, plush harmonies. Perhaps, it’s a bit short on the melodic side. You don’t walk away from this experience humming the songs. But maybe that’s the point.
It’s an experience. You watch Endless. You watch “Nikes”. You listen to Blonde. You experience Frank and his music the way he intended. He seems to have crafted music that plays to our short attention spans. This is the future of music: imperfection, incomplete thoughts, collections of random songs and sounds.
Upon first listen, I wasn’t sure if this was the record I’d been waiting for. But with every listen, I hear a new lyric or a new sound or a fresh flourish that I’d previously missed. With every listen, I realize how truly remarkable an achievement this album really is. And that’s the beauty of a great album. It doesn’t grow old or familiar with time. It just keeps getting better.