-Frank Oceans returns from his elusive four year silence.
Though prior to this album Frank Ocean really only has two proper releases (2011 mixtape “nostalgia, ULTRA” and 2012 debut commercial record “channel ORANGE”) he has made a gigantic impression on my life. Both of those releases I listen to religiously, albeit one more than the other. “channel ORANGE” is, on some days, the greatest album in the whole world to me. It’s perfect. I know every word by heart, every little nuance, every transition. One of those albums. It’s been the soundtrack to every summer since I’ve heard it, because the bright, vibrant chords, the simultaneously romantic and lonely lyrics, Frank’s gorgeous voice, and just the bold orange album cover make it a record that can actually only be played in summer. Which only enhances my love for it, because I’m apart from it for months, and then the sun comes back out and heats everything up and “channel ORANGE” is back in my life, and everything is OK again.
I also relate to Frank as a person. He’s a reserved introvert who just happens to be very famous, so since he dropped “channel ORANGE” in 2012 to big sales, an exploding fanbase, heaps of acclaim, and Grammy awards, he basically disappeared. He’s not built for the public eye, unlike his good friend Tyler, the Creator who basks in every bit of publicity and controversy. The exact opposite of Frank, and myself. I’d rather be alone or with the couple of people who I really fuck with and not have anybody dictate my time or what I do, and from what little we’ve gathered from Frank since 2012, he’s the same way. And as a bi male, him coming out a few years back as bi has hopefully normalized it a bit so it’s not such a shock when I eventually come out to the people who won’t understand. (Who won’t read this, I guarantee it.)
Hell, even the dude’s album covers are a huge part of my life. My dream car is the same one on the cover of “nostalgia, ULTRA,” an orange, mid 90s BMW.
So, this was a long, frustrating wait for millions of Frank Ocean diehards like myself. Because it wasn’t just 4 years without an album, it was 4 years without a peep from him, and more than a couple missed release dates for this album, mistakenly thought to be “Boys Don’t Cry.” But while those other Frank stans were breaking down his door for new music (and posting hilarious memes on twitter) I again, related to his long, drawn out process. He’s not the kind of guy to rush music, even in the face of millions of screaming for anything. But even if I wasn’t as mad or disappointed as others, I’d be lying if I said wasn’t growing a tiny bit impatient, especially when the New York Times reported August 5th release date came and went. I wanted something, ya know? A single, a press release, an EP, a feature, something. But then a visual album came out on the 19th, compiling footage from his cryptic livestream of him building a staircase (wearing some amazing outfits, mind you) with some scraps of songs playing in the background. But then, the following night, the real thing came through. His official followup to one of my favorite albums ever. And he followed it up with another.
…Which is remarkable because this really is quite different from “channel ORANGE.” Gone is the bright, summery atmosphere save for a couple of tracks, gone are the metaphorical, abstract lyrics that often told tales of lives other than Frank’s, and gone, basically, are the beats. There’s only a handful of tracks with drums and they hardly steal the show. Most of this album is backed by just some guitar or synths (“Ivy,” “Skyline To,” “Self Control,” “Seigfried,” “White Ferrari”); it’s very spare, very minimal, very quiet. “Solo” is simply some organ and Frank, and not huge organ chords, just little lines. “channel ORANGE” by comparison was bombastic and grandiose, both in sound and vision. “Blonde” is way more insular and is essentially the perfect ‘cry in your bedroom at night but simultaneously feel empowered as fuck’ album. So what makes such a minimal and musically bare album work so extraordinarily well? Frank Ocean himself.
With just his voice and lyrics he takes musical ideas that almost any other artist wouldn’t know what to do with, and makes them into beautifully melodic, emotionally devastating/uplifting powerhouses. His singing, for one, is so emotive and just, breathtaking. On “channel ORANGE” and “nostalgia, ULTRA” he was often a little disconnected, on purpose of course. And that goes back to the lyrics as well. He’d give you glimmers of biography but often did it through allusions and character studies. Here, Frank is pouring his heart out on nearly every song, and he moved me to tears on multiple occasions. And not because this album is terribly sad or anything. In fact, like I said above, it’s empowering as fuck because it sees Frank so at peace with who he is. But this album gets the tears flowing because it’s so intimate. The arrangements are so spare and all of the focus is on Frank, so it really feels like he’s right there in the room with you, singing these songs, baring his soul.
And it’s a beautiful soul. An interesting soul. He references growing up in New Orleans and being displaced by Katrina multiple times, most explicitly on the incredibly visual second verse on “Pink + White,” which is probably the most fleshed out song here, sonically. “Self Control” seems to be speaking of a romance Frank has with a man who is with a woman at the same time, so Frank asks to “keep a place for me, I’ll sleep between y’all.” “Good Guy” is a short story of Frank being set up with a guy who doesn’t see him as anything more than another late night. “Seigfried” sees Frank coming to terms with his elusive image, saying that he’d rather “live outside” and “go to jail” than to sell out.”Solo” follows Frank going city to city, smoking weed, having fun, feeling good, if at times lonely. Essentially, Frank is coming out fully formed on this album, totally open about himself, his sexuality, his image, his relationships, his drug use, everything, and it’s really inspiring to hear. He has a story to tell, and he tells it with exceptional grace and a beautiful balancing act between subtle and blunt.
…And he brings the melodies here, goddamn. I’ve heard many people complain that this album is tuneless and without discernible hooks, but to me, this shit was immediately catchy on nearly every tune. The songs rarely follow a verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, I’ll admit. They’re more linear. Some songs do have repeated hooks, though, and they’re astonishingly beautiful (I keep using that word, but few words describe this album better), like on “Solo,” where Frank flexes his vocal chops a bit with some dexterous singing, “Night,” where Frank basically makes the song Drake has been trying to make his whole career (and this is coming from a huge Drake fan), and “Ivy,” which has a melody and chord sequence immediate enough for a Rihanna single. And other songs, while featuring no hook per se, have moments of pure melodic bliss.
The harmonies in particular on this album are stunning. I had a friend point out that “Pink + White” has harmonies that sound almost like they’re in two different major scales, and somehow it goes without a hitch. “Skyline To” and “Self Control” feature outros with harmonies that melt me and send me straight to heaven, while on “White Ferrari” they just bring me to my knees, in tears. There’s a melodic genius to be heard here, as Frank had to bring his A+++ game because he had no beat to fall back on for anything catchy, and he absolutely did.
He brought his A+++ plus game on all fronts, really, which somehow feels like an understatement. His vocals are stunningly emotive, his lyrics are immersive and paint vivid pictures of his life and the world around him, and melodically, he makes these spare arrangements worth returning to over, and over, and over again, as I have over the past couple of days. On this album Frank cements himself as one of the greatest singer/songwriters I’ve ever heard, capable of making hour long masterpieces rest on his writing talents alone. And on “Blonde” Frank cements himself as one of the key voices of this generation. Where we mourn the deaths of fallen rappers on the daily (A$AP Yams.) Where Pimp C is one of the fallen legends we pay respect to. Where we remember vividly the death of Trayvon Martin and being young enough to care. (Fuck, he was the same age as me.) Where we stay up until our phones die. Where we don’t give a shit if someone’s black, Latino, gay, bisexual, or transgender. This album is a scroll through the Twitter-sphere, millions of tumblr posts, beautiful amateur photos, online confessions, dating apps, breakups, smoke sessions, and epiphanies. And not because Frank is incessantly name dropping SnapChat or Tinder, but because this album just feels not only modern, but like right now. And because Frank isn’t chasing sonic trends, this album will remain timeless. It’ll be a time capsule, like “Highway 61 Revisited,” but like that album, it won’t age a day because like I said above, Frank does a magical balancing act between subtle and blunt, just like Bob Dylan did 50 years ago to similar success.
“Blonde” is one of the very best albums I’ve ever heard.
Standout Tracks: “Nikes” “Ivy” “Pink + White” “Solo” “Skyline To” “Self Control” “Good Guy” “Nights” “Solo (Reprise)” “Facebook Story” “White Ferrari” “Sigfried” “Futura Free”