The enigmatic Frank Ocean rewrote the book on R&B with his landmark second album, 2012’s Channel Orange, and the anticipation surrounding his latest release has been bordering on sensational. Ultimately, Frank dropped two albums; a visual album, ala Beyonce, titled Endless, and a more traditional LP, Blonde. Although Endless is a strong enough record on its own due to the gargantuan talent of its creator, Blonde is a modern masterpiece; a deconstruction of both traditional genres and the traditional album structure that also succeeds in poetically gracing themes of dating culture, drug usage, nostalgia and sexuality, all backdropped against sports cars speeding through hazy Los Angeles summers.
Opener ‘Nikes’ introduces the off-kilter, minimalist production aesthetic the 28-year-old chose for Blonde, which stands in stark contrast to the lavish string and synth arrangements present throughout Channel Orange. Echoing backbeats that sound like they’re churning through murky water lay a foundation upon which Frank sings in a pitched-up, autotuned vocal that feels hollow and weak next to the strength of his natural singing voice, which finally enters the fray amid a cacophony of acoustic guitars and harps. The opener also serves to introduce Frank’s main lyrical themes; Blonde tracks are filled with juxtaposition between Frank’s personal relationship-inspired musings (“You got a roommate he’ll hear what we do / It’s only awkward if you’re fuckin him too”) and moments of greater existential clarity (“We’ll let you guys prophesy / We gon’ see the future first / Living so the last night feels like a past life”). ‘Ivy’ follows up with lo-fi, grainy guitar arpeggios and warbling strums, evoking a bareness and intimacy that pop music’s move toward more minimalist R&B (see The Weeknd) bypasses in favor of shrouded mystique. ‘Ivy’ touches further on Frank’s past but with further focus on nostalgia, with Frank pleading “Everything sucked back then / We were friends”.
After this two song exposition sets the stage for an album of stripped-back but beautiful ballads, ‘Pink + White’ takes a left turn by presenting itself as a jazzy, fully-formed single, with live percussion, backing vocals, and darting basslines that wouldn’t sound out of place on Channel Orange (production credits from Pharrell here are no surprise). “Cannonball off the porchside / older kids try it off the roof” Frank’s tenor, speak-singing style croons, harking back to the singer’s childhood before he parallels with his own romantic development at the time – “Just the same way you showed me”. The following skit puts us on the receiving end of a voicemail from Frank’s mom instructing him not to use drugs in college, which is immediately and fantastically contrasted with the opening lyric of highlight ‘Solo’- “Hand me a towel I’m dirty dancing by myself / Gone off tabs of that acid”. Backed by little more than chunky, mellowed out electric organ chords, Frank reminds us that at times he’s half a rapper, rattling off a series of psychadelic LA vignettes depicting various scenes of him going solo. It’s here that we get some of Frank’s fantastically detailed late-night-out lyrics that pepper Blonde, notably “No trees to blow through / But blow me and I’ll owe you / Two grams when the sunrise / Smoking good, rolling solo”.
The summer season plays a prominent role throughout Blonde: the sticky warmth, carefree nights and feelings of juvenile freedom resonating smoothly with Frank’s hybrid R&B, pitched down electronic and psychedelic sonic palette. ‘Skyline To’ is an ode to sex, summer and sex in the summer (“That’s a pretty fucking fast year flew by / Pretty fucking / Underneath moonlight now”). It’s lack of percussion and vocal-heavy arrangement (including shouts of ‘Smoke! Haze!’ by none other than Kendrick Lamar) sound strange in comparison to contemporary pop but come through as rather quaint on Blonde. ‘Self Control’ has fair claim as the album’s tear-jerker, bringing in strings and horns above a mellow fingerpicked guitar as Frank offers further reflections on his own romantic shortcomings, offering “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight”. Just like on Channel Orange’s standout ‘Thinkin’ Bout You’, Frank’s sexual ambiguity wraps additional meaning into the fold.
The second of several interludes, ‘Good Guy’, may only be a minute long, but in the hands of Ocean, the extremely lo-fi, autotuned barely-a-song is the musical equivalent of Hemingway’s six word stories; an extremely brief piece of art whose brevity serves to further emphasize the themes. At it’s surface, ‘Good Guy’ is just the story of a blind date Frank had at a gay bar in NYC, but the resonance of relatively simple lyrics like ‘I know you don’t need me right now / And to you it’s just a late night out’ can’t be overstated. The resulting skit further surveys loneliness and isolation before the album’s musical and lyrical centerpiece, ‘Nights’, breaks through with bright, shifting guitars, piano, and one of the few hip-hop backbeats on the album. The song investigates Frank’s after-dark encounters with sex, alcohol, drugs and regret. “Did you call me from a séance? You are from my past life / Hope you’re doing well bruh” Frank sings early on, his poetry and bluntness blurring the ability to characterize his lyrical style easily, before harping back on his own inability to resist the temptation to sink back into drugs (“Shut the fuck up I don’t want your conversation / Rolling marijuana that’s a cheap vacation”).
The following four tracks, all just one to two minutes in length and utilizing odd forms, kick off the back half of the album in an untraditional and inventive way, with Andre 3000 first taking the mic in the record’s only guest verse on ‘Solo Reprise’. Andre’s verse on Channel Orange’s ‘Pink Matter’ was perhaps that record’s strongest feature, and his lyrics here come fast, angry and devastating – “So low that I can admit / When I hear that another kid is shot by the popo it ain’t even an event no more” he rips, touching further on money, fame, ghost writing and feminism in an effort that, lyrically, may outshine any one specific verse on Frank’s own album. “Pretty Sweet” is the record’s most daring and ambitious statement, a ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ style chaotic suite of wild screams, droning choirs, high tempo beats and clashing, distorted instruments crashing in from every side. It’s followed by the only tracks that feel a bit superfluous on the otherwise appropriately overstuffed Blonde, the ‘Facebook Story’ spoken-word skit and Frank’s chopped, autotuned, Kanye-esque cover of The Carpenters’ ‘Close to You’.
Frank ends the record with four beautiful, broken-up, synth- and acoustic-heavy ballads, all devoid of percussion and showcasing Frank’s golden pipes and trademark falsetto. “Left when I forgot to speak / So I text the speech, lesser speeds / Texas speed, yes” Frank sings in one of the record’s most subtle and intricate lyrics on ‘White Ferrari’, a song so gorgeous and emotionally brilliant that the fact that it’s built around nothing more than a few chords and an acoustic guitar affirms the already foregone conclusion that Frank is the closest thing 2016 has to a musical genius (sorry Yeezy). “Sixteen, how was I supposed to know anything?” Frank asks as the listener is transported through time to the passenger seat of that white Ferrari. ‘Seigfried’ is similarly spacey and minimal, but without the heartbreaking melody of ‘White Ferrari’, and is followed by the more fully arranged ‘Godspeed’, the penultimate track that begins with Frank boldly declaring ‘I will always love you how I do!’. A sense of catharsis surrounding the troubling reflections and revelations regarding Frank’s former love life is swallowed by a menage of gospel organs and voices.
The record then closes with ‘Futura Free’, a fourth-wall breaking dialogue between Frank and the listener and Frank and his mother that somehow feels more real than any of the incredibly raw sixteen tracks that preceded it. “I used to work on my feet for 7 dollars an hour / Now I’m making 400, 600, 800k momma / To stand on my feet momma/ Play these songs, they paying me momma” Frank pines on one of few moments that the relatively reclusive singer reflects on his newfound fame. “I ain’t smoked in a whole year / this the last song so / I’m finna wipe that off” Frank details further, suggesting that on an album filled with explicit references to marijuana, this may have been the most recent written.
Thus the end of Blonde leaves us with an incredibly intimate portrait of who Frank Ocean is at this age, in this year, in the city of Los Angeles. His equal parts hedonistic and intensely introspective lifestyle is perfect for a record of this magnitude and scope, and it’s subtle and curious twists and turns are mirrored by the markedly lo-fi, stripped back but carefully arranged production as well as odd detours in the tracklist or between sections of single songs. Blonde is far ahead of its time musically and stylistically, and when compared to the wonderful but more traditional R&B efforts from this year by Anderson .Paak and Blood Orange, it feels like Frank is in another league, operating on a completely different axis. Blonde can’t even be called an R&B album. It has no genre. Just like Frank’s sexuality, it has nor needs any labels. It is singularly a masterpiece.
Written by HR Huber-Rodriguez