I’m not a professional writer. This is just a hobby. And for a blog hobbyist, certain experiences are difficult to properly describe. I’ve been tossing and turning for more than a month, struggling to grasp the right words. This fact lead me to a realization: this is not the Frank Ocean I thought I knew. Ocean’s sophomore release, Blonde, plays much like a dream, a hazy memory of something that didn’t actually happen but, in the moment, was inescapably real.
I was surprised by Blonde in numerous ways. First, Frank scrapped his tentative title Boys Don’t Cry less than 24 hours before it’s release, opting for something infinitely more cryptic. Second, Frank follows in the vein of his visual album Endless, turning his focus further inward—only this time around, he’s all-in. Blonde is so restrained and idiosyncratic that upon one’s first listen, it can seem unapproachable, even off-putting. Frank takes his sweet, sweet time, as is his wont. The opening track, “Nikes,” is a perfect example. It takes three minutes for us to hear Frank’s unaltered voice, and just after he sings that first line (“We’ll let you guys prophesy”) there’s a six second pause, giving us due time to comfort in hearing his incredible, singular voice once again. There’s a lot going on in “Nikes.” Frank Ocean has always been revered as a vivid storyteller, but this tell-some songwriting is something else entirely. Frank both sets a scene and scrapes against the past. He ruminates on the deaths of A$AP Yams, Pimp-C, and Trayvon Martin. “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me” has rung in my brain since I first heard it, a powerful exaltation. In the song’s video, Ocean holds up a framed picture of Trayvon, and they do look alike. But more importantly, Frank speaks to the track he was headed down following Channel ORANGE. He references Pimp-C, who passed away in 2007 to a reported overdose from codeine-based cough syrup. “Sippin’ pink-gold lemonades.” It’s a scary thing, confronting mortality. But to see it so abruptly displayed in the death of a 17-year old kid. President Obama said if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. I wonder if Frank feels the same.
Blonde is not interested in Channel ORANGE‘s California sunshine. These songs don’t even remotely ring as fictitious. Frank has some things to get off his chest. “I thought that I was dreamin’ when you said you loved me” he sings on “Ivy,” a song about making mistakes and learning, growing up slowly but surely. Frank is more candid than ever, confessing “I could hate you now, it’s all right to hate me now,” atop a guitar-heavy production courtesy of Jamie xx and former Vampire Weekend bandmate Rostam. “Pink + White” reinforces Blonde‘s commitment to guitar, drum, and piano. In one minute, the song is dreamy, lofting along deliberate and delicate piano keys and cymbal taps. As soon as it feels settled, “Ivy” introduces another element in the strum of an acoustic guitar. This bait-and-switch becomes a steady theme of the album. Nothing remains the same for too long. “Self Control” pairs Frank’s supple R&B vocals with an omnipresent guitar, providing the song’s bass, treble, and everything in-between. It’s a subtle gut-punch of a song, with Frank reflecting on the dissolution of a relationship. He sings “I came to visit, ’cause you see me like a UFO / That’s like never, ’cause I made you use your self control / And you made me lose my self control.” Frank racks his brain, nonchalantly brushing off this on-again, off-again love by saying “It’s nothing, it’s nothing.” The song drifts off into the distance. Then it changes. Frank can’t help but hold onto songs, and the same goes for people. Above a dreamscape of guitar and reverb, Frank proclaims “I, I, I / Know you gotta leave, leave, leave / Take down some summer time / Give up, just tonight, night, night.” Frank is hiding his true feelings, the hurt of still not being over unrequited love. You can almost hear Frank swallowing the frog in his throat, never more comfortable to hide amongst the noise.
The first ninety seconds of “Nights” is the closest Blonde gets to the beach. The beat clangs lazily, a head-bopping skip to it’s step. Frank raps “Can’t keep up a conversation / Can’t nobody reach you / Why your eyes well up? / Did you call me from a seance? / You are from my past life / Hope you’re doin’ well bruh.” Frank’s songwriting can sometimes reach Zodiac-like levels of cryptography. Someone is trying to reconnect with Frank after a long period of silence, but Frank has moved on; in fact, he’s so far removed from this relationship that he came to the realization he’s dead to this person. He must be reaching him via seance. In the song’s hook, Frank elaborates, singing “Know them boys wanna see me broke down and shit / Bummed out and shit, stressed out and shit / That’s every day shit / Shut the fuck up I don’t want your conversation / Rollin’ marijuana that’s a cheap vacation / My every day shit, every night shit, every day shit.” This could mean a lot of different things. Frank is no stranger to attack. He received countless homophobic messages following his life-changing tumblr post prior to the release of Channel ORANGE. More obviously, for four years he was harassed on the daily, unable to exist online without fans begging, pleading, screaming for more music. How can you not be bummed out? Stressed out? Some people relax by going to the spa. Some take a vacation, others spend time at home at let responsibility wash away. Some people smoke weed. It’s a cheaper vacation than most. But as Frank acknowledges, smoking weed becomes repetitive to the point of being a chore, as do most things in life. You can escape any number of things, but life is not one of them.
The last four tracks of the album are my favorite. There are so many small elements that ring with personality. The last minute-and-a-half of “White Ferrari” finds Frank’s voice drift off in the ether, softly overtaken by the soundtrack playing in the background, as though he were listening to another artist as he recorded. “Seigfried” is ambling and humble. The soft strings play nicely with Frank’s lyrics detailing a metaphysical breakup. The end of the song finds Frank’s unique, sweet falsetto singing “I’d do anything for you.” “Godspeed” beckons back boyhood, a meditation on dreams Frank had in his youth coming to fruition. He’s famous. He’s made it. But don’t let him be mistaken, boys still cry. “Futura Free” is a free-form ramble on a broad range of topics; Frank talks on his own sexuality, fame, and religion, as well as reflecting on Jay-Z, Def Jam, and the deaths Tupac Shakur and Selena (of Selena y Los Dinos), both of whom met tragic ends at a young age. The song stops in cold silence, broken by a recording leaden with white noise. Frank is being interviewed by his younger brother Ryan. They’re both younger—much younger—and sound excited, carefree, a far cry from adult life. The recording ends with Ryan asking “How far is a light year?”
Having spent so long with this album, I realize it’s not for everybody. Blonde is a vibrant, living culture, comfortable to live in it’s own skin. It’s own mythos, even. And to that point, I think Blonde says more about us as a culture than it does about Frank Ocean as an artist. We’re moving at breakneck speed, simultaneously consuming different forms of media by the second, our eyes and ears hungrier for more, more, more. Frank Ocean stepped away, as so many mythical black artists have done before (think D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Jean-Michel Basquiat), and left the world wondering what was to come next. He stayed grounded, realistic, steeped in his work. He vanished off the grid entirely. And then he came back. After four years of silence. He lost a lot in those four years; fans, friends, lovers—little pieces of marble a sculptor slowly chips away. Much will be lost as we grow older. But not once, not once, did Frank Ocean ever lose himself.
Favorite tracks: “Nikes,” “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” “Solo,” “Self Control,” White Ferrari,” “Seigfried”