Blonde or Blonde on Blonde?
Frank Ocean’s comeback album showcases his excellent songwriting and singing abilities
August 28, 2016
Pop music’s favorite archetype is the braggadocious extrovert, the shameless self-promoter that wastes more words talking about their art than they do actually singing. They are the social (media) butterflies that pay tens of thousands dollars for floor seats to an NBA Finals game and could give two shits about Steph Curry’s jump shot. They sell-out shows worldwide, star in their own reality TV show, date another celebrity of equal magnitude, and maybe even start their own fashion line to really cash in on their personal branding. Pop artists let the world know that they exist — there is Kanye, Beyonce, and Justin Bieber. Then, there is Frank Ocean.
In 2012, Frank Ocean gave the world Channel Orange. It was lauded as a masterpiece, a landmark R&B album whose eclecticism contained discussions of race, drug abuse, sexuality, religion and more with just a few flicks of unforgettable falsetto. To put it simply, Channel Orange was diverse, interesting, and truly unique. Even more intriguing than the music was the artist who created it — Ocean is a former Katrina refugee associated with the chronically homophobic hip-hop collective Odd Future while himself being openly bisexual. He became the prodigy with the beautiful voice and without Twitter. After Channel Orange, the music critics’ most beloved recluse went into hibernation for four long years.
Thankfully, Frank Ocean was not, as he once sang, completely “lost in the heat of it all”. After years of anticipation, Ocean released his second commercial album titled Blonde. It is sparse, acoustic, and more mature than his previous work. Ocean has traded in the pounding, orchestrated synths found in his earlier songs such as “Pyramids” for deep, mellow bass and guitars washed-out with reverb. In songs such as “Solo,” Frank Ocean accentuates his ability as a singer and showcases his more disciplined songwriting. Here, he meanders over a church organ while rapping and singing about the personal experiences of cheap sex, drug use, and the loneliness caused by the incompatibility of the two.
In “Ivy,” Ocean performs a ballad detailing the beauty of a past relationship and the nostalgia accompanied with its failure. Although he chooses to strip down the instrumentation, Ocean doesn’t lose focus when perfecting the details. Instead, his song composition better fuses together the melody and the lyrics, making the album incredibly personal while giving us insight into his own cocoon. He reimagines himself as the person sitting next to us, playing skeletal piano under a robust voice, and crying out the emotions that we often feel but can never correctly put into words.
Still, Frank Ocean’s world is as blurry and indecisive as the character we paint him to be. “White Ferrari” devolves from an intoxicating joyride with his partner in the passenger seat to a look at the relationship as one without satisfaction. “Seigfried” is an atmospheric and beautifully haunting look into Ocean’s complicated sexuality. “Godspeed” is a moving gospel and easily one of Ocean’s most impressive vocal performances to date — however, it is quickly followed by “Futura Free,” where Ocean dials back his expressive singing to a monologue of droning autotune and macho hip-hop tropes. The same man that rejects hedonism in the opening track “Nikes” also declares that “I don’t cut bitches no more/But your bitch my exception/Come get her outta my four door/I only got one four door.” The same artist who chases sobriety also says that he wants to break his year-long smoking abstinence. Frank Ocean lives on the boundary between different versions of himself, and he is as honest with his transgressions as he is with his accomplishments. He peels back his stories to collections of details and series of contradictions. This is what makes Blonde so human — and so great.
To be honest, Blonde is not what I expected it to be, or even what I hoped for. After four years working away from the spotlight, I anticipated a grandiose effort with diverse sounds, layers of synergistic texture, and a more focused vision. Instead, Frank Ocean has produced an album that is withdrawn at the first listen, but novel and emotional when you ditch your preconceptions. Blonde is more meaningful than any other commercial release this year, and Frank Ocean has further cemented his worth as a masterful singer-songwriter.