In the four years since ‘Channel ORANGE’, the ever-elusive Frank Ocean has been held aloft as an R&B Jesus, a symbol of queer artistry, and the internet’s favourite disappearing act. Fans are never the most balanced, but the pressure to deliver a masterpiece seemed to grow more ferocious with each delay the follow-up received. These expectations were intense, understandable and ultimately pointless.
Now that we have ‘Blonde’, it’s clear that Frank Ocean isn’t much bothered by what anyone wants his art to be, or when they want it. In a poignant note commemorating Prince shortly after his death, Ocean wrote: “My assessment is that he learned early on how little value to assign someone else’s opinion of you.” It’s a trait he carries into this album – in its obscured message, its sonic weirdness, its anxious mood, and its loose, ragged structure. He’s clearly not concerned about poor reviewers either, because ‘Blonde’ isn’t an album that can be concisely written about; these are rich, multifaceted songs that know when to keep the listener at arm’s length, and when to pull them in close.
Ocean isn’t giving away any secrets yet either. The stellar credits list brings in a mix of eclectic names; it’s not certain where exactly some fit. Sure, James Blake’s vocal manipulation style and glacial textures are everywhere, and Jonny Greenwood’s crisp guitar lines are either constantly present or a constant influence. In truth, wherever Brian Eno, Jamie XX and Arca are doesn’t matter, given how singular ‘Blonde’’s vision is. Heavyweights like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé have their voices reduced to effects and textures rather than being given their own space. The Beatles and Elliott Smith are worked in gorgeously as lyrical references that melt into Ocean’s own story. Even Andre 3000’s excellent skittering verse fits the album. Nothing disrupts the mood. Nothing kills the momentum.
Momentum is a key word, despite the relative lack of percussion – only a few of these songs are built upon tight beats or sturdy structures, Ocean’s gorgeous melody lines floating in the air for most of the record. Instead, these songs grow in size between the lines. The frequent mentions of drug use, seclusion, cars, sex, dreams, men, women, validation, acceptance, the past and death swirl together into a hazy, confounding portrait of inner turmoil, pain and heartbreak. Druggy layers of guitar, organ and warped vocal fragments colour it all powerfully. “We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you/I’m not him, but I’ll mean something to you” Ocean sings on the opener before his voice fragments into several pitches, drums swallowing the air as the track fades out. It’s an early glimpse of a vulnerable tone that only becomes more aching the further the album delves into its themes.
Where ‘Channel ORANGE’ was crafted on grooves and tight choruses, ‘Blonde’ is made from delicate textures, lyrical snapshots, and frail melodies. Even Ocean’s warm voice is masked with pitch-shifts and manipulations that heighten the emotion and increase the risk of emotional collapse. It reminds me of the ‘The Life Pablo’’s collage structure, each moment connected despite the chaotic first glance. The cracked hymn, ‘Good Guy’ – a tender story of a blind date that never warms up – is made more melancholic by the frailty of Ocean’s sped-up vocal. “Here’s to the gay bar you took me to. It’s when I realised you talk so much, more than I do” he mutters. “I know you don’t need me right now/ And to you it’s just a late night out”. And then the story is cut short in the middle of a chord sequence, the listener and singer left alone.
Dejection builds upon dejection throughout the album, and it becomes clear that the drugs are a mode of defence, a wall to put up to stop the cycle continuing. “Shut the fuck up, I don’t want your conversation / Rolling marijuana that’s a cheap vacation” he sings on ‘Nights’, clearly ignoring the stern warning his real life mother gives him on ‘Be Yourself’ (“When people become weed-heads, they become sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned” she lectures on an answerphone message, mirroring similar advice given about greed on ‘Not Just Money’ from ‘Channel ORANGE’; even as his music grows, Ocean remains humble enough to take advice). The rest of the album plays into this idea of personal separation from the world – such as the emotional minefield of social-media jealousy discussed in Sebastian’s ‘Facebook Story’ – but this is only one layer of a portrait that will take a while to fully unravel.
‘Blonde’ is meant to be consumed as a whole, but some moments stick out as spine-tinglingly good: the shimmering acoustic guitar and burst of strings on ‘Pink + White’; the transient, wobbling synths that coat the evening verse on ‘Skyline To’; the explosion of drums on ‘Pretty Sweet’ which instantly turn the song into a jam right from ‘The Love Below’. And then there’s the one-two punch of ‘White Ferrari’ and ‘Seigfried’. The former sits you right in the passenger seat, on a third verse that’s as close as Frank Ocean has ever let us get to him, his voice fluttering, at the height of its powers as anxious noise bubbles beneath him and patient guitars keep it from wavering. “I’m sure we’re taller in other dimensions/ you say we’re small and not worth the mention”, he breathes, using small details to hint at why a relationship eventually trickled away. ‘Siegfried’ is the emotional climax, a complete crisis of self-purpose delivered over a hazy, muted guitar that feels so much weightier than it is.
It’s tempting to write about albums as being about one thing – not just because that would be easier, but because it would be more comforting, given how much humans love categorising. Ocean’s bisexuality will be a focal point of reviews; the artist openly embraces his ‘two versions’ in the album’s packaging, using both masculine and feminine versions of the word, while many of the songs reference gender roles and his sexuality in subtle ways. But this isn’t just an album about sexuality. It’s not even just an album about Frank Ocean. It’s a deeply personal breakup album. It’s an album about moving on. It’s an album about looking back. It’s a mastery of mixing and production. It’s the type of rare record that will mean a multitude of things to different people. The only thing certain is that ‘Blonde’ is something special.
‘Blonde’ is out now via Apple Music.