Blonde is the sound of an artist urging his listener to be patient, and in this age of instant gratification, it is a refreshing, rewarding triumph.
In the four years since channel ORANGE was released, Frank Ocean has gone from breakout star to musical myth. Instead of basking in the glow of Grammys and critical acclaim, the New Orleans singer receded from the spotlight to work on his sophomore effort, Boys Don’t Cry. But the anticipated project, initially set for a July 2015 release, came and went with no delivery. Follow up dates were continuously squandered, while the only condolence for this retreat came in the form of cryptic internet clues and barely audible demos. Fans questioned whether Boys Don’t Cry even existed, or more desperately, whether the singer/songwriter would ever return. Ocean had officially become the Bobby Fischer of R&B -- an artist whose sporadic guest features and Tumblr posts were the music industry equivalent of a unicorn sighting.
But after an odd, elongated rollout, Ocean finally rejoined the world last Saturday. His album, retitled Blonde, came complete with 17 tracks, a promotional music video (lead single “Nikes”) and a curiously spelled cover (Blond). Promotion was marginal, but listeners flocked nonetheless, eager to determine whether the wait was worth it.
Sonically, the album parks itself miles away from channel ORANGE. Ocean’s debut toured through ancient Egypt (“Pyramids”), Tibetan jungles (“Monks”), and contemporary L.A. (“Super Rich Kids”) with technicolor intensity and ornate production. But on Blonde, the singer makes a distinct shift from globetrotting epics to backroom reflection -- the type of insular tunes that only a homebody could dream up. Guitars, both electric and acoustic, are Ocean’s instrument of choice on nearly every track, from the surfer rock of “Ivy” to the spiraling bossa nova of “Skyline To".
Complimented by Ocean’s naturally melancholy tone, Blonde is a troubled cousin to last summer’s Wildheart, where R&B peer Miguel also swapped his soulful cape for singer/songwriter credentials. While Miguel channeled the swagger of ‘70s California, however, Ocean’s set belongs to neither the past nor the present -- but a time unique unto him. “Self Control", the closest Blonde comes to blatant nostalgia, feigns tradition before mutating into an ethereal hymn; while “Siegfried” blends ‘90s naval gazing with modern cloud rap.
Behind the scenes, Odd Future affiliate Tyler, The Creator, electronic artist James Blake, and French DJ Sebastian (who tells a poignant little tale on “Facebook Story”) are among the many who add detail to Blonde’s cavernous, occasionally psychedelic (“Nights”, “Pretty Sweet”) sound. With so many hands on deck, the album could’ve easily fallen victim to messiness, but not a single song feels misplaced or unfocused. Take, for example, the third track, “Pink + White", produced by Pharrell Williams and featuring vocals from Beyoncé. Instead of buckling beneath either superstar, Ocean anchors himself to his sunny subject matter while Queen Bey’s coos serve as mere icing on top -- likewise for Kendrick Lamar’s subtle refrain on “Skyline To". Fittingly, the only guest Ocean lends the spotlight to is André 3000, who delivers a dazzling verbal display on the “Solo (Reprise)”. Having appeared on channel ORANGE, the fellow recluse returns as Ocean’s kindred rapper; a wordsmith more in tune with reflection than braggadocio.
This earnestness carries over into the singer’s own songwriting. In sidelining fictional narratives this time around, Ocean allows his soul-searching tendencies to take center stage. “Solo", a spacey isolation anthem, contains imagery so vivid it practically overpowers the senses: “It’s Hell on Earth, and the city's on fire, in Hell, in Hell, there’s Heaven.” Compounded by a chilling vocal riff, Ocean elevates the blues to biblical levels, and the results are driven home by enunciation that sounds curiously similar to “So Low” by song’s end. Are we happy? Would we give it all up to relive the happy moments that have already passed? These are the questions that keep Ocean at an existential low, and allow the listener to infuse their own nostalgia (ultra) along the way.
Songs like “White Ferrari” and “Close to You” further separate this spiritual unfurling from the first half, and towards Blonde’s catharsis with the penultimate track: “Godspeed". Ocean makes peace with the past, while his open, slightly quivered singing pulls the audience from memory lane and places them in aisled pews. Guest vocalist Kim Burrell evokes a church setting, while lines like “You'll have this place to call home, always” and “I let go of my claim for you” paint an emotional release in choired brushstrokes. Having previously confessed his sins on Orange’s “Bad Religion,” Ocean again stands before his audience: a flawed man, consumed with what could’ve been and unsure of where to go next.
It’s ironic that an album so long in the making places such importance on time, but the correlation feels organic. Blonde is a slower and softer listen than channel ORANGE. Its motivations are more obtuse, while the guitars that string each track together make it tougher to select a potential radio hit. Instead of catering to those who adored his past work, the album burrows inward and proves the only time Frank Ocean is interested in keeping is the beat of his own drum. It proves a worthwhile decision. Blonde is the sound of an artist urging his listener to be patient, and in this age of instant gratification, it is a refreshing, rewarding triumph.