For fans of Frank Ocean the wait for his latest album Blonde has been aggravating, to say the least. With some mighty determination they’ve done their best to brush off any image of fan entitlement but the hunger for his music has been present as we’ve slogged through a rather lackluster summer of music debuts. His release of Blonde wasn’t just terrific for his fans, but music in general as the figurative dam broke and albums began to pour in. With a plethora of guest appearances and industry giants appearing on his latest, Blonde was about as hyped as an album can be in the vast world of music, and it nearly delivers on all fronts.
Ocean made waves with his debut Channel Orange, a game changing piece of art that defied genre congestion. Any artist would have been daunted at the prospect of following that up but Ocean does so with gusto. Beyond a piece of pop legacy, Blonde is a work that will forever fit into the modern zeitgeist, something that both celebrates artistry and pop music and, best of all, what happens when the two blend together.
Kicking off with the song “Nikes” the album immediately solidifies what will be the all encompassing tonality of the songs to follow, while also invoking the death of Trayvon Martin. Soulful, synth heavy and laden with a personal message, it’s far from the strongest song he has but it sets the mood. “Ivy” which picks up immediately after it greater pins down what makes Ocean such an engaging performer. He sings:
His version of a bittersweet love song, it surpasses what’s expected of an R&B ballad and instead utilizing dream pop aesthetics with surf guitars and a killer ending that explodes. It also, despite being one of the many highlights of the 45 minute piece, is one of the first examples of how strange the transitions are on Blonde. I had to pause every few seconds to see if the song had actually ended yet.
Blonde isn’t afraid to play with convention or genre labeling, which means “Pink + White” can sound as if it were hand picked out of the mid-90’s hip-hop catalog, skip to a spoken word interlude, to “Solo” which takes the slower pace the album had struck and dials it up to ten. It’s a resurgence of liveliness after a few meditative numbers with the “it’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire” refrain being one of the most powerfully composed lines of “Blond”, Oceans vocals strong, strained and emotive. There are the underlying vibes of a song talking about the anxieties of a new relationship and they all come pouring out in those nine words.
An idiosyncratic musician, Ocean can transform from the sweet seductive pain of “Solo” and move onto “Skyline To”, a bare number at the star that slowly builds, a low percussion providing the backbone. Before it trails off it allows for an ending with a choir which is a gorgeous choice and once again implies the artists eclectic nature. “Nights” is possibly the most strictly “pop” song in the most typical sense of the word-it’s very melodic with a distinct and heavy beat, plus a jaw dropping impressive second half transition.
Lyrically he’s both playful and somber, passionate and sweet, all of which listeners sense with the topic hopping Ocean does on the album. “Good Guy” romanticizes a one night stand while “Solo (Reprise)” allows for Andre 3000 to make a guest appearance to give a vocal middle finger to ghost writing (something Ocean did at the start of his career) and the hollow musicians who don’t-or aren’t permitted-to write their own songs. It’s a take down to the lack of authenticity.
Despite a song or two in the second half that do not land with the might of the start, the album does make a superb choice of ending on “White Ferrari”, “Siegfried” and “Godspeed”, a trio of songs that are the emotional climax. Ferrari in particular is immensely engaging with “Siegfried” delivering some scorching lyricism.
It’s noteworthy that the breakdowns of his songs are where his musical creativity, or versatility, really shine through as he pulls from strictly R&B, to soul to rock and roll guitar beats and indie productions. Here is an artist that refuses to live inside the box the music industry has built for him and who would rather take changes, live musically large and ultimately because of it become known as an artist who refuses to compromise his vision for his art.
Blonde is a success not only because, technically speaking, it’s a outstanding sophomoric effort, but also because it’s pure artistry with soul and life injected into it to make it something each listener can engage with and relate to.