From Me to You: Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’

Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 5:19pm

Frank Ocean

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Def Jam Recordings

I have a confession to make. I did not like Blonde on my first listen. In a word, it was cold; compared to Channel Orange’s vibrant neo-soul soundtrack for an endless summer, Blonde was the bitter wind whipping across a snow-blanketed landscape. I was not caught up in the extremely speculative pre-release hype cycle either (I gave up hope after July 2015), so when the “Nikes” video dropped, I was not in a tizzy scrambling to watch it. In fact, I opted not to view the video and instead dive straight into the album, since “Nikes” kicked it off. And upon first experiencing the surreal soundscape that is Blonde, I was lost. Every song sounded so empty, so unconventional in its instrumentation, establishing an atmosphere that suffocated me with its unfamiliar air. I was lucky to be taken back to the land of the known when André 3000 unapologetically exploded on “Solo (Reprise),” but it was a fleeting moment. By the time “Future Free” noisily faded out, Blonde had escaped — a lightyear ahead of me in meaning.

It took a listen to “Chanel” (the first of Frank’s post-Blonde solo singles) for me to reevaluate Blonde. “My guy pretty like a girl / and he got fight stories to tell,” asserts Frank at the beginning of the song, unabashed about himself and less reserved in his lyrics than I had ever perceived him. It took looking up the meaning of “see on both sides like Chanel” to recognize that I had never understood Frank in the way he asks to be understood. Sure, on a musical level I very much enjoyed channel ORANGE, but did I ever fully grasp what he so desperately wanted to say? I felt it necessary to give Frank the better chance he deserves, so multiple rereads of Frank’s open letter and reflective relistens of channel ORANGE later, I was finally ready for Blonde.

This time, I started by attacking the album from its heart. “Nights,” the Chanel-logo-shaped key that unlocks the world of Blonde, very much encapsulates the album in its entirety. With the beat switch of “Nights” occurring almost perfectly at the middle of Blonde’s runtime, the song reinforces the thread of duality that is woven so strongly into it. This duality of personality, of sexuality, is made clear right from the title; Blonde, the female adjective, is the official name, while blond, the male adjective, appears on the cover. Realizing this duality was the secret to my newfound love for Ocean’s genreless masterpiece, as was time.

Blonde was released the summer before my senior year of high school. Then, I was anxious about the future but masked it with the comfort of the familiarity that ruled my life. I went to an all-boys Catholic school and spent many hours on cross-country trips with the guys on my quiz bowl team, so I became relaxed to being around males all the time, yet lingered wishingly on the thought of a standard heterosexual relationship (an endeavor I struggled at due to my bothersome lack of female friends). So when graduation rolled around and I was finally free of those high school bonds, I felt a strong need to make up for the four lost years of a “normal” experience and throw myself onto the first girl at college that showed signs of romantic interest towards me. This resulted in me fucking up spectacularly (twice!), and in fucking up, I had to personally reevaluate why I was doing this to myself.

I realized that in my mythically misguided quest for “normal” love, considering heterosexuality “normal” was myself suppressing interior feelings I now understand have been a part of me forever. My high school years resulted in a few intimate bonds with boys that were nothing more than friendships, but enough for me to lower my guard to guys and be completely at ease around those I trust. The reason for all my failed relationships with girls is inexperience; I’m just not accustomed to how the opposite sex functions so I attempt to tread carefully out of fear. Fear of not being accepted for who I am, fear of misrepresenting the person I truly am and pretending to be someone I’m not. Around males this fear vanishes, but around females this fear motivates a sense of self-improvement, to better myself and make the outside reflect the in.

It’s hard to write about my sexuality because it is punctuated by question marks. I simply don’t know why I am who I am, but I do know I’ll love anyone who genuinely makes me feel loved and secure in this world, gender be damned. And that’s why Blonde has become so important to me, soundtracking my struggles for knowledge and meaning. In all its ambiguity and duality, Frank’s lyrics remain deeply personal yet universal. The lovers referred to throughout the album are hardly gendered; they “see him like a UFO” in “Self Control,” he’s “outside and the timing’s perfect” but forgets to tell them “how much I vibe with you” on “Solo,” he implores them “it’s quite alright to hate me now” on “Ivy.” Frank has experienced a lifetime of relationships by the time Blonde comes to a close, and no matter who they are, they have shaped the man he has become and make him less worried about finding the answers to all his questions.

On the profoundly impactful “Seigfried,” Ocean is engulfed by those questions, asking for acceptance and wishing his best can be enough. “Maybe I’m a fool / maybe I should move / and settle, two kids and a swimming pool / I’m not brave.” Frank is frustrated with bisexual erasure, how he is either labeled as gay or straight depending on the person he’s currently seeing, and how he desires an ordinary lifestyle but is afraid to undercut his sexuality, his most fundamental characteristic. In interspersing the Elliott Smith line “this is not my life / it’s just a fond farewell to a friend,” Frank suddenly dares to be as brave as the titular mythical Norse hero. He bids goodbye to his past self, which became tangled in superficial social notions, and asserts to go against the current of society and seek a concrete definition for his misunderstood identity.

Frank Ocean’s challenges, doubts, thoughts and experiences are brought into complete focus with Blonde. I am eternally grateful for the album and its essence, and how it showed me that I am not alone in my confusion about my sexuality and how it is entwined into every fiber of my being. Although Frank and I might be different in the fact that I can’t afford a Chanel belt, I still relate to him on a personal level and everything he so courageously put forward on Blonde.

— Robert Mansuetti, Daily Arts Writer 

Blonde was released by Frank Ocean as I began my senior year of high school. The most-awaited project of the year, it was teased periodically through cryptic clues and developments that made the waiting feel like a vital part of the experience (including a three-week long livestream of Frank building what ended up being a staircase to nowhere — the video of this process eventually became the oft-overlooked visual album Endless).

I was out with friends when Blonde dropped, so I could not immediately sit down and listen to the album three times over, which was my initial impulse. As we departed, I took the aux. I had already heard “Nikes,” so I turned on the next song, “Ivy.” It was one of those strange days where there was intermittent light rain mixed with sun, the air imbued with a certain familiar surrealism, and the reverb-drenched guitar and wistful lyrics of “Ivy” mingled with the languid and dreamlike surroundings. The rain seemed to halt right as “Ivy” ended and the breezy “Pink + White” took its place; it felt almost choreographed.

I listened to the rest alone, late at night, in bed. At first, I had no idea what to make of it. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before: an atmospheric blur of pop genres, intentionally shapeless and elusive. It was an inversion of what anyone could have expected: the big moments felt vulnerable and the small moments felt towering. Some songs leaped out at me immediately, namely “Self-Control” and “Nights.” No music has ever made me feel the way that the outro of “Self-Control” did upon first hearing it, a blend of resignation and yearning that seems quintessentially human. “Nights” was not just a dynamic aural masterpiece, but a seemingly effortless encapsulation of my own nocturnal life.

I played the album incessantly, and new favorites began to emerge: “White Ferrari,” (a sweet song reflecting on past love that I wish I could relate to more) and “Seigfried” (a poetic expression of self-doubt that I wish I could relate to less). “Good Guy” is a criminally-overlooked cut, short but heartfelt. A friend told me that while he found “Godspeed” beautiful, he could not bear to listen to it because it was too evocative of a recently-ended relationship. New details surfaced with each listen: the subtle evocation of “Here, There and Everywhere” on “White Ferrari,” the recurring bittersweet key motif that appears on the spoken word sections of the album, the interpolation of Elliott Smith on “Seigfried.” Blonde felt universal: much of the allure of the album was not merely the beauty of the songs, but how I could see that Blonde inspires in others the same feelings it did in me: everyone has been the lonely person in “Solo” and known the girl who cut her hair in “Self-Control,” Frank’s masterful use of omission and ambiguity allows us to insert ourselves into the songs, Frank’s own perspective still central yet inscrutable.

Blonde is the Pet Sounds of the modern generation: the introspective and ambitious work of an auteur riddled with nostalgia and melancholy, fueled by psychedelics and longing, creating a sense of a man out of his own time but simultaneously emblematic of his generation. Both albums tell the story of flawed human connection and broken love, one that we can return to without it becoming less meaningful. Nowadays, when I listen to Blonde, I think of a new phase in my life, but I still remember the people and places that came before. While my specific situations continue to evolve, my underlying doubts and deep-seated desires remain the same. As I grow, Blonde grows with me, and so long as I continue to deal with love, trials, and setbacks, Blonde will remain the soundtrack to my life.

— Jonah Mendelson, Daily Arts Writer

Blonde is the type of album that never dies. It is ever-transforming, taking on new life and new meaning. Although I am aware that this is probably the case for many, Blonde is a very personal album to me. It has evolved into a soundtrack to my life, with its illustration of highs and lows and solitude. Its scary sense of self-awareness. Its vulnerability.

Blonde’s release on the cusp of summer, between two seasons — where the humid dew of late, deep August meets the September breeze — was no accident, I am sure. Afterall, Ocean makes countless references to the season itself, with lines like, “This is joy, this is Summer.” He talks about spending the summer by poolsides and taking down summertime. Like a midsummer night dream, for me, the album served as an anthem of transition as one life, carefree and buoyant, changed into the next. The start of my Junior year.

“Self Control” is one of the album’s most tragic songs, as it traces Frank’s desperation in holding on to a lover who has clearly moved onto someone else. When the album came out, it bizarrely paralleled a situation in my romantic life, and I couldn’t help but relate as he sing-weeps, “Keep a place for me,” begging his lover to not forget him. Just like how the summer passes and the grass begins to brown, it is easy to dismiss the past and the people who occupied it. Ocean expresses this fear of being forgotten, just as I feared the same. Just as humans do.

Hyper-aware of this transition, a weird dichotomy of the death of summer and the nativity of my school life, his words became therapy and comfort for me. To accept this state of an in-between. Like in “Nights,” the “Pyramids” of Blonde, the melodic transition, forming two parts, ingeniously symbolizes the sobering realization of having the energy of a night come to an end. In typical Frank fashion of solemn minor chords, I admit this album allows me to indulge and brood in the sentimental and nostalgic. To hold onto things I probably should forget.

Exactly one summer later, this past summer, my love for this album was only further solidified when Ocean performed at Panorama. His stripped down performance, backed by Alex G and filmed by Spike Jonze, eradicated the border between performer and audience and transformed into an almost collaborative therapy session. In the swath of the summer, my life had come full circle.

— Sophia White, Daily Arts Writer

When reminiscing about my past, I associate different fads with different moments. Of these obsessions, many have come and gone, shaping me into the person I identify as today. Growing into an artist myself, I double as a sponge, absorbing inspiration out of every possible outlet. Familiar with traditional media of art, I never placed time or sound within this category of fine art. While creating my art, a factor of isolation can sometimes occur in terms of finding others who can relate to my own appreciation of various forms of art and design. I felt I was missing a commonplace for this empathy for creativity.

I tend to idolize my favorite musicians as an avid music fan of all genres. However, I never really grouped the sounds of these musical icons as a definite medium of art. I separated it from my own everyday practice. That was until Frank Ocean released the masterpiece of an album that is Blonde. After practically devouring Channel Orange, I was overcome with joy as the album was released.

Trying to put into words the impact that Blonde has had on my life is difficult. How can I do justice to something that has influenced my personal practice so much? This album exposed me to the fact that sound is a medium for the creation of fine art. And in this case, one that can truly withstand the test of time. The sonic landscape created in Blonde is one I am still lost in, still exploring, still using as a source of inspiration. Frank Ocean’s Blonde was the first time I was able to align myself with an album. The way Frank uses sound in this album to put a spotlight on his voice among varied sonic textures revolutionized my experience as a music fan. This strategy as employed in Blonde inspired me as an artist. It showed me how to find my own voice and expose it through my own work. Blonde was the first time I felt that every note, lyric, and score together were intentional, combining to create a finished work of art. From “Ivy” to “White Ferrari" this masterpiece has taught me what it means to truly create intentional and meaningful art beyond expected mediums.

This realization, in turn, shattered the barrier I felt between myself and those around me. Blonde brought me closer to those I never thought could be my friends, as this album created a common place for empathy and a genuine love for music and art to grow. Every lyric, rhythm and beat is intentional. As were the connections I developed within myself and others as a result of this album. From late night drives with the iconic “Self Control” on repeat, to moments of tranquility with “Godspeed” as a backdrop, this album is a constant reminder and a leader in the integration of art into mundane settings. It is a font of creative power for more than just the artist. Blonde’s sonic genius is the medium, the masterpiece, we all needed.

— Margaret Sheridan, Daily Arts Writer