By Jacob Ridenour
Three years after the release of the immensely successful Channel Orange, Frank Ocean teased the magazine accompaniment for a record titled Boys Don’t Cry that would release in July of 2015. Droves of internet outrage and one more year of Frank Ocean drought later, Ocean introduced the listening world to Blonde, one hour and seventeen tracks of Ocean’s furthest departure from convention yet. Blonde lives up to the legacy of Channel Orange and expands on its concepts.
That being said, Blonde is not Channel Orange 2, nor do its peaks resemble that of his freshman album. Blonde does not have a “Thinkin’ Bout You” or even a “Pyramids.” Ocean’s artistic highs on Blonde are moments of technically proficient lyricism alongside dreamily-rendered anecdotes of growing up, drugs, and sexuality. Blonde’s subject matter is nothing new to Ocean: on Channel Orange, he tackled these obstacles with the gravity of a heavily-orchestrated tour de force. Blonde, however, is a half step above tongue-in-cheek, artistic in a way completely unlike “Pyramids” or “Lost”, so unlike as to say “I’m intentionally not playing it safe, I’m making what I need to make for myself.” Every track presents itself as having been ripped from a moment in Ocean’s life, unedited, and hastily pasted on a board with no regard as to how petty or incomplete or repetitive the idea seems in the grand scheme of things. In this regard, Blonde drums up similarities to The Life of Pablo by Kanye West (or even pom pom by Ariel Pink, to me) although Blonde’s production and Frank’s voice provides a semi-gloss of “this is all exactly how everything was meant to be.”
The track, “Nikes” is probably the least Frank Ocean (and the most polarizing) track that he could have possibly led with. For most of the song, Ocean’s voice is bathed in a filter so heavy that it might as well be anyone else in the entire world singing. Here, Ocean bounces from a reference to Trayvon Martin to an extended metaphor about being in love with a mermaid. As difficult and “un-Frank Ocean” as “Nikes” may be — the beat-switch, the reverb, the absolutely human obsession with love — deeply ensconces the listener in the world of Blonde.
“Ivy” is a recollection of a lost love and lost innocence, both themes that reappear and grow as the album plays on. Here, lyrics such as “I broke your heart last week/You’ll probably feel better by the weekend” sit a few lines down from “I thought that I was dreaming/When you said you loved me.” These innermost thoughts, petty and contradictory and unshareable as they may seem, are blown out here. “Pink + White” details how beautiful a love had been, and how irredeemably and naturally the good days of his youth had to come to a close.
Channel Orange’s gimmick of television and Nostalgia Ultra’s of Nintendo is interrupted here by a more light-handed continuity. The first skit, “Be Yourself,” has Ocean’s aunt ranting about Ocean’s going off to college and, of course, being himself. She denounces alcohol and weed to a sweet little tune that could’ve easily been the basis of a beat anywhere else on the record. The irony on this track, of course, is that Ocean’s vices are embedded in the sweetest, more harmless ways on every other song. On the only other skit, “Facebook Story,” French producer SebastiAn rambles through a tirade of “women and their facebook, jeez!” or something to that effect — it’s hot garbage.
“Solo” has Ocean woefully admitting that he’s better off alone than in a relationship, while ironically resorting to all kinds of things to cope with the resultant loneliness. “Self Control” has Ocean madly in love with someone, though it seems more youthful lust than anything else. Still, Ocean gives up and loses, you guessed it, his self control. Despite this person being with someone else, his desire gets the best of him and he claims, “I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing/Keep a place for me.” There is no censorship nor an abundance of self-respect on Blonde, and if there were it would only suffer for it.
The next track, “Good Guy,” is a one minute, half-sung tale of a date that crushes Ocean after he realizes that the guy is only looking for a fling. This serves as a palette cleanser for the change of gears coming in the five minute long “Nights,” complete with a beat-switch so bold that both halves of the song are distinct from one another. The first half of the song features Frank’s rapping, while the second half is fitted with a filter to pitch Ocean’s voice up for a reason I don’t actually know yet. Most of this song, along with a few other moments on this album, are dense enough that I’m still not sure exactly what any of it means — and that’s after at least fifty or sixty plays on the entirety of “Nights.
Blonde is replete with dozens of small features, and probably hundreds of influences, but “Solo (Reprise)” deserves special mention for existing, so it seems, solely for the purpose of proving that Frank Ocean can indeed still get Andre 3000 on a track. Yes, Andre 3000 can still rap and, God bless, he is given a complex, glitchy beat to style on for the quickest minute of your life.
The last few tracks are where a lot of listeners claim Blonde loses its steam; however, this is where I feel the tone switches from “My youth and my relationships have been complicated and druggy and I pulled through” to “I am a product of everything that I’ve ever been and that’s a big deal,” and the quality does not suffer. Concepts touched in the first half are looked at here through a more serious, refined lens. If you thought this album was vapid, the fact that I can, in good conscience, make the statement that “Siegfried” addresses his bisexuality and lack of masculinity through Norse folklore should prove otherwise. “White Ferrari” confirms my suspicion of a Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens’s influence that had been sneaking around in some of the quieter moments.
“Futura Free” is nine minutes long, containing hashed together segments from Ocean’s younger brother interviewing a couple of other 11-year-olds. The youthful voices and goofiness on here just about brought a tear to my eye on first listen. Though it isn’t the first tear-jerker on the album, it feels like the most hard fought after an hour of delving into Ocean’s internal combat growing up. Blonde comes to a cinematic ending in which “Futura Free” felt to me like the part of the movie where everyone hugs it out and realizes everything is going to be okay and, well, being a kid wasn’t that bad.