‘Blonde’ and its pensive words answer to Frank Ocean’s long silence
Four years wrought with a fusion of anticipation, fear, excitement and anger defined Frank Ocean’s industry-deafening absence — and aptly so. Ocean’s debut album unmasked a previously little-known, alternative R&B artist as the genre’s saving grace. With his generation-defining sounds conveying elements of youthful, emotional malaise, Ocean’s knack for storytelling became an outlet for listeners’ modern-day qualms and quandaries — a form of therapy in a comfortable and meditative space. He crooned about sadness, love, anger and addiction, all the while garnering (musical) addicts of his own. For an artist who provided “the culture” with far more than it deserved, the culture responded by chomping at the bit for Frank to provide even more. Ironically enough, Frank Ocean’s self-exiling at the hands of the public’s demands for more music resulted in an album rich in meaning, but far from convention or expectation.
Prolonged artistic respites are seen as worrisome, especially in a time when some artists literally litter their discographies with albums rather than risk losing relevancy. After the responsibility of representing his race and sexuality was thrust upon him (largely on the volition of the public rather than his own), no one knew what to expect from his absence — that being the most worrisome aspect of it all. As easily as he could match Channel Orange, Ocean could very well come back like Kid Cudi, delivering unlistenable music on the back of unreasonable expectations and fervent media hype. And when Ocean resurfaced from his artistic slumber with the release of Endless, a 45-minute video of Ocean constructing a spiral staircase set to a fragmented smorgasbord of neo-soul, what people heard was promising, but far from the cohesive experience they were expecting. When Ocean’s actual long-awaited studio album arrived less than 48 hours later, expectations weren’t exactly met either — what seemed like an amalgamation of wispy sounds and fragmented lyrics were all Ocean had to show following his return.
Despite one’s personal leanings toward the album, Blonde is undoubtedly one of the more enigmatic albums to surface in the past few years. Signature sounds that characterized Ocean’s earlier discography are gone, exchanged for hazy and muted string-heavy ballads and spectral lyrics. Tucked in between these songs are sobering skits that reflect Ocean’s own sentiments concerning love and youth in the modern age, ranging from an impassioned voicemail from Ocean’s own mother lecturing him about drug use, to French DJ SebastiAn recounting a humorous anecdote about Facebook ruining one of his past relationships. Themes and motifs of the album overlap with parts of Channel Orange, but in ways uncharacteristic of the more pronounced sounds of Ocean’s past projects. Things concern Frank, and only Frank, on Blonde. Deep introspection is bandied about on the album rather than the emotional anthems that encapsulated much of Channel Orange. A first impression of Blonde can paint it as worryingly subversive, almost akin to the unabashed creative liberties undertaken by Radiohead in their production of Kid A, an album that shook the foundation of its own genre for good reason. Fluid, minimalist, lush and eerily emotional, both albums are almost one in the same in that respect. Waiting for a four-year silence to be broken is torture enough, but to be delivered a project as unexpected as Blonde can only compound that.
All that considered, allowing shock to set its tone would be unjust for the album that Blonde fleshes itself out to be. The album boasts prestigious collaborators, from the likes of Beyonce and James Blake to more outré personalities like Swedish rapper Yung Lean, many of them characterizing the sonically rich nature of the project, all while staying subtle enough to allow Ocean to dictate much of the foreground of the album. Beyonce is tasked with outro vocals on “Pink + White”, and Kendrick Lamar quietly whispers along with Ocean on “Skyline To,” taking more stagehand-like roles while Ocean conducts a show of his own making. The way Ocean paints Blonde shows that no voice is more important than his own when it comes to the stories he tells.
Blonde doesn’t lend itself as a platform for large, gestural political statements, a likely intentional move on Ocean’s part. Where Channel Orange takes on a musical journey outlining the modern millennial condition, Blonde functions as stark self-portraiture through music. Ocean covers his race and sexuality on parts of the album, but also answers to lost friends and admired legends (“Pour up for A$AP [Yams] // RIP Pimp C”). On the graces of the platform Channel Orange provided him, Ocean crafts a project that singularly embodies himself beyond much else — rather than a vignette of stories defining the collective millennial psyche, he emotionally describes (and largely recants) his own life as a member of the same generation, wallowing over lost love and self-alienation. Ocean comes back to the forefront of music sounding as withered as he does comfortable in himself and his identity, especially compared to his Channel Orange days.
To appreciate Blonde means understanding the reason behind its unabashedly raw nature. On Channel Orange, Ocean sings for love, but now he ruminates for years gone by. Nostalgia serves as one of the centers of this album — nostalgia for lost love, for drinking with friends, for “simpler days.” Frank Ocean made Blonde for himself, and for his very real experiences and sentiments. Where Channel Orange plays to a room full of people, on Blonde Ocean sings to himself — and despite that, it’s the closest we get to empathizing with Ocean’s words, and it’s the most sobering image we can get of what it means to be a member of his generation. Blonde chronicles the motions of a life like Ocean’s, laying bare his plucked heartstrings for all to see. Life isn’t clear, nor is it ever perfect. Frank Ocean manages to paint that with more candor and honesty than most artists have ever managed.