Frank Ocean’s first LP since 2012’s ‘Channel Orange’ is an experimental, catchy work of self-reflection.
It’s been a handful of years since I was getting stoned in my freshman year dorm room falling asleep to Channel Orange. Now Frank Ocean’s album is one of the most teased and anticipated in recent memory. Mere days after the release of the ambitious visual album Endless, Ocean has delivered. Blonde is a minimalistic R&B record that is more low-key than Ocean’s previous work, but still maintains the prevailing notions on past, present and future.
“Nikes” kicks off the record with pitched-up vocals reflecting on the past year. “RIP Pimp C, RIP Trayvon,” laments Ocean. Three minutes into the track, we finally hear Frank go off and realize, yes, this is a love song. The following track, “Ivy” is bound to be a hit and brings the catchiest hook of the album to the table, and uses electric guitars to great effect. “Pink+White” and “Solo” follow suit, with the latter being both the most like a Drake song and one of the more spiritual tracks. “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/Inhale, in Hell, there’s Heaven.” The first half of Blonde reads front-loaded in the same way as Channel Orange. It’s one of the few similarities between the two, actually. In the same way, the second half is much more experimental and is where the more philosophical queries are saved for.
There is a sonic consistency that works in the album’s favor. Blonde is a vocal album. It is, despite the multiple features and producer credits, a solo album in the most essential way. It is the range of his voice mixed with the somber honesty we’ve come to expect that allow this to work. Frank Ocean is distinct and he knows it. He knows how long we’ve been waiting, and he doesn’t waste time. For the most part, you are hearing his voice during the entire run. Ocean’s vocals and lyrics are the driving force behind every song. But even when they aren’t, the album feels thought out. There are shorter, connective tissue tracks similar to Channel Orange (where they worked to great effect), which initially worried me. These don’t feel like filler, as is often the case. Both “Be Yourself” (a phone call from his mother dissuading use of the reefer) and “Facebook Story” are potently ironic, and speak to larger issues. They don’t take you out of the album, but similar to the way artists use features, force you to engage with it on another level and see into Ocean’s life.
The backing guitars make an appearance again on another one of Blonde‘s best tracks, “Self Control.” This is where we most we hear Ocean openly lamenting lost love. It’s a crucial element of his music, and this is certainly one of the most heartbreaking tracks he has released. Not long after that is “Nights,” which is the most upbeat and catchiest song on the notably low-key and melodic album. “Nights” is the most playful Ocean gets, reminding us that real friends are the ones we break the law with and dropping bombs like “why your eyes well up/did you call me from a seance?” that will bring a much needed smile to your face.
Already, the most talked about track has to be the one where Ocean takes a step back. Andre 3000 takes the reigns for a 90 second verse that is “Solo (Reprise).” It is Blonde‘s “Buried Alive,” but denser. One of the densest verses ever written perhaps, as Andre moves rapidly from politics to disillusionment with the state of the industry, ending on “I’m stumbled and lived every word, was I working just way too hard?” and letting it hang there. There isn’t too much rapping on the record, with most of it saved for the second half. Of course, Ocean’s ability to oscillate between rapping, singing and the no man’s land between is still seamless and spot on. The ending of “Seigfried” is his strongest in this regard, a psychedelic trip Ocean spends “dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought.”
The record ends with the nearly 10 minute “Futura Free.” It’s fine, not actually 10 minutes, but can’t hold a candle to “Pyramids,” the most obvious point of reference. It’s a weak finale musically. Luckily, the final four minutes take audio from an old interview with Frank and Sage Elsesser. The final nostalgic gut punch has Ocean reflecting on how far he’s come. There is nothing more melancholy on the entire record. It’s piano backing over the static and voices of kids who didn’t know what they were getting into. It’s the pain of growing up, and having so much on your shoulders.
The inevitable Channel Orange comparisons will come, so here it is. Blonde is not as much of a hip-hop album as Channel Orange, it isn’t even a pop album in the same way. In the same vein as The Life of Pablo, Ocean has created an album that sounds how you would imagine his mind to work. The inner machinations of a star who has dedicated his life to not just making new sounds, but creating a new sound. There aren’t as many hits here and frankly, it’s not the conceptual masterpiece that Channel Orange was. If anything, Blonde is a step in the experimental revolution of modern pop music. More consistent and less afraid of quietness than his counterparts, Frank Ocean isn’t here to make a ruckus, he is here to stay.
Recommended Tracks: Ivy, Self Control, Nights, Solo (Reprise)