It’s finally here.
After a visual album, a magazine, countless rumors and years of silence, Frank Ocean finally returns to deliver his long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Channel ORANGE, and frankly, it is nerve-wracking. This year alone, hip-hop and R&B fans have sat into the dark hours of the night, waiting for the not promoted, spontaneous releases of Drake’s Views, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. While this format has become the new means for big name artists to receive the most attention for their work, the new method also brings with it exorbitant levels of hype and anticipation. No matter how good the performer, there is only so much pressure one can handle before it all comes crumbling down, right? Well, it is hard to tell in the case of Frank Ocean’s new album Blonde.
Compared to the visual album Endless that was released a day prior, Blonde is more organized and cohesive while still retaining the experimental flair that characterized the visual album. Whereas Endless defined itself through the eccentricities of short tracks and a mural of song concepts, Blonde is the fully realized result of said explorations, a completed portrait with the paint finally dry and permanent on the canvas. To be completely honest, it sounds like the aimless ramblings and scattered thoughts that float around in Ocean’s mind, immediately guaranteeing the acclaim of most of his fans.
However, it isn’t just his fans that would enjoy an album like this. Even more than Channel ORANGE, Blonde takes experimental, contemporary R&B to new levels. “Pink + White”, for example, is a gelding of the orthodox and unorthodox, with an acoustic guitar and strings providing the bulk of the beat as Beyoncé provides wonderful backing vocals to accentuate Frank’s own performance. “Solo” and “Godspeed” combine spiritual organs with Ocean’s powerful singing, and the electric guitars across the album contain a variety of sounds, from the light arpeggios of “Skyline To” to the psychedelic sounds of “Pretty Sweet”. Like the greatest artists, Frank Ocean makes the new and experimental appealing towards even the most mainstream audiences, except this time the songs are more fulfilling and memorable than ever before.
Interspersed between a few of the songs are skits, and they are just as entertaining and thought provoking. In particular, “Be Yourself” seems to be making a large statement on society’s fascination with drugs. While his mother warns him against the use of drugs, Frank Ocean openly details his substance use across the entire album, potentially seeing his addiction as a self-aware irony or contradiction of sorts. “Facebook Story”, on the other hand, details the story of a man who ended up losing his girlfriend because he did not friend her on Facebook. Similar to “Be Yourself”, there’s a message implied in the skit; in this instance, it’s the irony that social media separates humanity rather than unifies it. Since most of the tracks on Blonde are purposefully obtuse and varied in meaning, these skits successfully lay the groundwork as to the themes, concepts and messages spread across the album.
Like past Frank Ocean albums, ideas of isolation, love, heartbreak and nostalgic reminiscing on the past are all present and generally presented in the same manner as on previous albums. As a whole, the song concepts are nothing new for Frank Ocean, which is fine since he does what he does so well. Still, it would have been interesting to see him explore new territory, especially since Blonde revels in its forward thinking production and song structure.
Now, there is little to dislike about Blonde, but it’s still worth discussing. The chipmunk vocal effects on “Nike” and “Self Control” should never be used, and especially don’t deserve to be on a Frank Ocean album. Also, “Nights”, while good, is a bit too heavy-handed with the guitar strums, causing the track to sound somewhat jarring as a result. These are minor issues, but make the album feel like a demo at points, and detract from what otherwise would be great songs. To put it in perspective, Endless suffers from the same problems, but accentuates them instead of hiding or preventing them.
According to the liner notes, everyone from David Bowie to Kendrick and Kanye influenced this album in some way or another, and it’s not surprising to see why. Besides drawing from his own personal experiences, Frank also mines from his musical influences on Blonde, and the result is a piece of art that can only be made by Ocean himself. While most artists would have drowned under the pressure, hype, anticipation and scale of an album like Blonde, he passes with flying colors, making him not only one of the most unique R&B artists of our time, but also one of the best as well.