Album Review: Frank Ocean—“Blond”

By Gilad Lippa, Feature Photo via The Advocate

It’s been a long four years. Although, comparatively, the downtime between albums hasn’t been that long (cf. 14 years between D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah), a world without new music from one of the most beloved and vanguard singer-songwriters of our era was one that felt like it had been sapped of a vital life-force. Compounded by leaked release dates not being met and no sign from Frank himself as to when or if the music would ever arrive, it became more and more distressing for us eager fans to bear. But, here we are, or were, when last weekend, our prayers were finally answered.

First came a “visual album,” wherein, for its 40 or so minute duration, Frank, constructs and then walks up a wooden spiral staircase, soundtracked to his first new original songs since his breakthrough debut Channel Orange (minus the opener, his 2015 cover of Aaliyah’s cover of the Isley Brother’s “(At Your Best) You Are Love”). The video itself seems designed to test the patience of its viewers, in the same way that Andy Warhol’s experimental films do. The soundtrack also has a bit of a testing feel to it. There’s no clear through-line connecting these songs, it’s more of a hodge-podge of different sounds and ideas seemingly handpicked right out of Frank’s notebook, with the help of a handful of other notable artists and producers (Sampha, Arca, Alex G., James Blake, to name a few). If this were all that we were left with by Frank, I think there would have been considerable public backlash, namely because there is no indication the soundtrack will be released separately from the visuals, leaving it as a self-contained installation artwork, and thus burdensome to enjoy if for the music alone.

Thankfully, Frank delivered an album-proper mere days following the release of Endless. Instead of its previously rumored title of Boys Don’t Cry, Blond(e) (the ‘e’ is missing on the album cover, but appears on Apple Music. Some have theorized this is on purpose, alluding to Frank’s bisexuality) came adorned with a cover of the artist, in dyed green hair, holding his face as if crying in the shower, a clear wink to the previous title. The title isn’t the only departure that marks the album. Instead of carrying over the lustrous, poised, and effortless boundary-pushing pop and R&B of Channel Orange, here we have Frank even less concerned with striving for radio play. Sonically, the album seems to recede even further from the spotlight, opting for a minimalist, bluesy, bedroom-pop sheen.

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Album cover for Blond

This isn’t to say that Frank is shying away from anything. On the contrary, he seems to have gained a whole new confidence in his artistic abilities with this album. He no longer feels the need to show-boast his tremendous voice or to use an array of extravagant crossover R&B/hip-hop-indebted beats to prove that he is as viable an artist as any name on the Top-40 list, as he did on his debut album. On album opener, “Nikes,” we don’t even get his real voice at first. Distorted to a wheezing helium-pitch, it’s as if he’s hiding from us some more, all the while gracefully tackling topics of modern materialism and hedonism, and mourning the deaths of prominent black musicians, A$AP Yams, Pimp C, and the tragic figurehead whose untimely death helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement, Trayvon Martin.

Even though, for the majority, in this album Frank seems to be trapped in a bog of wistful recollection, regret, loneliness, angst, sexual frustration, and maladjustment to heterosexual-norms. However, I think Frank’s strength foremost lies in his vulnerability and willingness to bare himself open to the listener. On one of the early album highlights, “Solo,” Frank starts confidently exploring the motif of being alone with the assured declaration, “Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself/ Gone off those tabs of acid.” Later in the song, his confidence and drugged out, carefree attitude seem to wane. “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/In hell, in hell, there’s heaven,” Frank’s voice soars on the chorus, as if it were all that were capable of carrying him, and by extension, his listeners, to safety from any kind of malaise or apocalyptic inferno (NB: the lyrics “in hell” can also be read as “inhale,” which correlates with the weed-as-salvation theme that runs throughout this song and at other points on the album”).

What’s remarkable about this song, and the album in general, is how little Frank uses instrumentally to produce such enormous impact. “Solo” is all billowing church organs, “Ivy,” all warm, gentle, Beach House-esque guitar strums, “Seigfried,” subtly hissing, lo-fi guitar, a lonely piano, and echoed vocal effects with some orchestral strings to accentuate the pain in Frank’s voice as he belts the mantra, “I’m not brave!” In a bold move by Frank and his production team, most of the songs on the album do away with identifiable drum sounds, leaning mainly on Frank’s angelic voice for their power. This lends the album an even greater intimacy, authenticity, and cathartic strain to these extremely confessional tunes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the lines that can be interpreted as the general raison d’être of this album, and even more broadly for Frank as an artist, doesn’t come from himself, but that of his most trustworthy collaborator, and perhaps the best pound-for-pound lyricist in rap right now, Mr. Andre 3000, at the end of a disillusioned, yet utterly dazzling verse on “Solo (Reprise).” “After 20 years in I’m so naïve/ I was under the impression/ That everyone wrote they own verses/ It’s comin’ back different, and yeah, that shit hurts me/ I’m hummin’ and whistlin’ to those not deserving/ I’ve stumbled and lived every word/ Was I working just way too hard?” These lines not only take subliminal shots at Drake, as Andre is obviously thoroughly dismayed by the fact that musicians today can earn their praises without even writing their own songs, but more importantly, it hints at the essence of this album. Blonde proves that the most indelible and profound music can only come from a genuine place – and we are so privileged to be let in.

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