Review: Frank Ocean, Blonde

The deceptively powerful and rich Blonde is the long-awaited follow-up to Channel Orange
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“I feel like Selena,” Frank Ocean sings on “Futura Free”, “they wanna…murder me like Selena.” The “they” in that lyric is a thinly veiled reference to the R&B artist’s rabid fanbase, who’ve reached near apoplexy over and over again in the long wait for the follow-up to Channel Orange. All told, fours years (give or take a few weeks) isn’t that long a wait. But Frank hasn’t tried to soothe any nerves, quite the opposite in fact. He announced his sophomore LP, then called Boys Don’t Cry, back in April of 2015 with a Tumblr post that included a tantalizing detail: #JULY2015. We all know what didn’t happen that July, or this July for that matter, when Frank posted a library slip filled with missed due dates that included July 2016 in the list (ha ha). So overzealous fans can be forgiven for their anger and frustration, and maybe even applauded for not taking matters into their own hands. (I’m looking at you, Second Amendment People!)

Though the foreplay felt interminable, the payoff—two great Frank Ocean records delivered back-to-back last week—approaches the tantric. The first release is a “visual album”, if only in name. Yes, Endless features moving images, of multiple Franks constructing a spiral staircase to nowhere in particular, but skyward nonetheless. That said, Endless, which still only exists as a single-serve Apple Music stream, isn’t the cinematic equivalent to Lemonade, or even particularly interesting to watch. It is, instead, an aural patchwork of fascinating ideas and song snippets, of roads Ocean didn’t fully explore, that have been unified into an dreamy cul-de-sac.

Blonde—unleashed a day later, also exclusively on Apple Music, and in conjunction with pop-up outlets where it was bundled with a magazine bearing the album’s original title—is the true heir to Channel Orange. Listeners perplexed by Endless’ experimentalism can exhale with satisfaction; these are songs with recognizable frameworks, such as verses, bridges, and choruses. But like Endless, Blonde is a singular statement. And, following Channel Orange’s lead, both new albums proudly thwart specific categories or genres.

Los Angeles continues to be an inspiration, and a spiritual setting, for Ocean’s latest work. If Channel Orange emerged from the gaudy mansions of Ladera Heights, Blonde would be more comfortable lounging in a Laurel Canyon bungalow. Acoustic guitars, sometimes plugged in, provide spare strums and plucked arpeggios. Electric piano notes and organ chords offer a bit of moody color. On top of these basic instrumental accompaniments, and some percussive pitter-patter now and then, Frank sings graceful, direct vocal hooks. Apart from a few notable exceptions—the choral freak-out of “Pretty Sweet”, the soul thump of “Nights”, the lush swing of “Pink + White”, the fractured Carpenters interpolation of “Close to You”—these tracks are like elegant watercolor paintings next to the thick and layered brushstrokes of Channel Orange’s oil masterworks.

And yet, this sonic simplicity belies Blonde’s deceptive power and richness. Despite a ridiculous list of contributor credits, and the breathtaking staccato of an André 3000 showcase (“Solo (Reprise)”), here’s an album that seems helmed by an all-powerful author. Ocean’s lyrics have never been so inventive (the impressionistic vistas of “White Ferrari” and “Solo”), so naked (the personal reflections of “Nights” and “Futura Free”), or so tender (the romantic confessions of “Godspeed” and “Good Guy”). His vocals have reached peak devastation: see the reverberated regret of “Seigfried”, the celestial coda of “Self Control”, the up-pitched sorrow of “Nikes”.

Apart from an early stint as a professional songwriter, Frank Ocean has eschewed the imperative to churn out Billboard sensations. His biggest single, “Thinking About You”, became a minor hit despite an utter lack of chart-topping ambition. But Ocean remains a natural melodicist, with a knack for sideways hooks. Nothing on Blonde approaches the vertiginous heights of Bad Religion”, “Thinking About You”, or “Forrest Gump”. Its opening trio—the beguiling “Nikes”, the lilting “Ivy”, the tinkling “Pink + White”—comes the closest. Still, Frank seems less interested than ever with hit-making. His vision on Blonde is holistic and grand. As such, this is a more unified work than Channel Orange: Its skits share a common instrumental motif; Ocean offhandedly refers back to an earlier lyric on “Seigfried”; “Futura Free” is a meta-commentary of his career and the album’s creation.

There’s no question that Blonde was well worth the wait, though I’m unconvinced it merited such a protracted and hyped windup. Ocean appeared to prepare us for another masterpiece, which this isn’t. On the whole, Blonde is more assured and consistent than Channel Orange. It inherits the bagginess of his overstuffed debut, but lacks the thrill of groundbreaking novelty. Frank Ocean is an outlier, an artist who can produce an album this phenomenal and nevertheless fall a bit short. A MINUS