On Blonde, Frank Ocean fearlessly balances avant-garde themes and aesthetics with cathartic pop bliss
Words: Jamie Lawlor
For a minute there, we thought the day might never come, but on that sunny Saturday afternoon, the second studio album by Frank Ocean was finally out. A lot has happened in the realm of black culture since Ocean’s four-year disappearance, from the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement to Kendrick Lamar’s paradigm-shattering racial commentary on To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick’s concept album pitched a silent war with the status quo of meaningless materialism in popular music, leaving Ocean on thin ice as we gazed at the final track list with an opening song called “Nikes” and another named “White Ferrari” further down. Let’s also remember that with a debut as beloved as his, and an Internet hater culture that makes a sophomore slump nearly inevitable, Ocean faced the immeasurable pressure of millions of fans all wondering the same thing: Would the music and message of Blonde be everything we’d come to expect this time around? But after years of excruciating suspense, our only hope was to press play, and what we heard was the exact emotional, esoteric masterpiece we’d been yearning to hear since Channel Orange. On Blonde, Frank Ocean fearlessly balances avant-garde themes and aesthetics with cathartic pop bliss, the way any classic artist would hope to.
And so it begins with “Nikes,” a song title that baits as a sell-out pop radio single, and delivers the polar opposite. Frank Ocean’s voice is disguised in an unsettling high-pitch effect that taunts the fans’ thirst to hear his trademark croon even further. This is presumably part of the Yeezus-esque technique of intentionally contorting a piece of aesthetic perfection in favor of thought-provoking experimentation, like sonic cubism. In this song, Nikes are not a trophy like in the lyrics of Ocean’s contemporaries, but rather a symbol of today’s meaningless material culture. In the song’s official video that was released alongside the album, Ocean slouches against a lonely nightscape of exquisite race cars, disaffected, perhaps to communicate that he has been given the lavish life that society hails as its pinnacle, yet remains unfulfilled. Later, for the bridge and final verse, Ocean’s organic voice can finally be heard, as if to portray his escape from the throes of conformity to reach his true purpose at last. With whimsy and a tinge of warranted arrogance, he repeats phrases like “We’ll let you guys prophesy, we gon’ see the future first,” and “I’ll mean something to you.” See, from his Playstation 1 samples to his Dragon Ball Z innuendos, Frank Ocean has always been a premiere icon for this millennial generation to genuinely relate to. And in this era so palpably starved for meaning and purpose, it’s no wonder after hearing Blonde why we so desperately longed to hear his voice again.
But if “Nikes” was too cerebral for the common listener, cue “Ivy,” and we are suddenly cascading through Ocean’s pure, distilled ecstasy. “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me,” he cries out over a lone guitar-and-bass motif. In the song’s second chorus, he tenderly leaps an octave to reach a vocal plateau unmatched by any Frank Ocean recording of the past, even including his preceding bonus album Endless. “Ivy” ends with a chaotic overlap of Ocean at an even higher third octave, summoning the flamboyant screeches of Prince. If Channel Orange proved Ocean a talented singer, Blonde proves him a legendary one.
And the vocals aren’t the only aspect of Blonde where Ocean outshines his debut, as “Pink + White,” “Solo,” and “Self Control,” seal his ability to change lives as a songwriter before the album’s second half even starts. The production as a whole is also unprecedented—take for instance, the haunting industrial drones and blasts of “Pretty Sweet,” the likes of which an R&B star has never seemed to have adapted before. It’s complete with an even-better guest verse from André 3000 that dizzied hip hop purists of all generations—and lyrically—Blonde makes Ocean a formidable opponent to even Mr. Benjamin himself.
The sweeping climax of the album comes at the halfway mark with “Nights”—a shapeshifting anthem that reminds boundless classic rock suites like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” which rejects traditional song structure to follow an unhinged trajectory of pure inspiration. It begins with a gut-wrenching rock n’ roll ballad where Ocean attempts to level with an ambiguously-gendered lover, and much like in last album’s “Pyramids,” we then slowly spiral into a Dimethyltryptamine trip of warping synths, strings and guitars. An abrupt halt commences the third act, where the tempo and beat changes, and Ocean’s helium-huffing alter-ego from “Nikes” returns with a bouncy trap verse. At the close of “Night,” the real Ocean reappears over the sluggish instrumental and manages to circle back to the mesmerizing melody from the five-minute saga’s beginning. Good God, everything about this is beautiful.
And when he’s not psychedelic, Frank Ocean is maintaining his minimalist silhouette, as most of these songs consist of just his voice and a single keyboard or guitar, and no third element ever feels necessary there. While Ocean’s fanbase and aesthetic is tightly weaved amongst hip hop and R&B, this album draws heavy inspiration from classic singer-songwriters from Nick Cave to Morrissey, and even interpolates melodies by Elliott Smith and The Beatles. Superstar guest appearances are present, but slyly hidden; for example, Beyoncé’s whispering backing vocals can be heard on “Pink + White,” and both Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar are credited with contributions that have yet to be identified. Even David Bowie has his name on the cryptic project credits, and not because of a sample or interpolation like Elliott Smith. Could Bowie, the late rock n’ roll God, have had a hand in the making of Blonde sometime before he passed?
This is all part of the wonderment that surrounds musicians like Bowie and Ocean, who have both mastered the dying art of mystique. It’s a far cry from other R&B artists that commodify their albums’ featured artists by enumerating them on billboards across the nation. That’s because Frank Ocean is one of the tragically few musicians that adhere to their art as the true driver of their success, rather than a series of marketing tactics and networking strategies. Ultimately, it feels like Ocean just wants to restore the artistic virtues that this era discarded without reason in the first place.
In today’s pop music, the greats of yesteryear aren’t so much as appreciated, and the guitar in general is a withering relic. Frank Ocean made guitar the primary instrument of his album, seamlessly embedding it among his many lush digital-age production elements. He sought to derive and repurpose the music of classic artists as a vessel of quality. He even packaged his physical copies of Blonde as a print magazine, a medium considered patently obsolete in itself. He willfully did away with each of his celebrated social media accounts. Regardless of one’s opinion, these songs are true expressions of complex ideas and emotions, not deliberately synthesized “club bangers,” designed solely for the purpose of profit like so many other recording artists aimlessly attempt. And yet, his worldwide commercial appeal hasn’t wavered for even a second. Let Blonde be a heartwarming and long overdue reminder that no matter how thickly the evils of greed and exploitation are laid upon the art form of music, the real will always rise, just like it always has.