Author’s Note: This is a review on the album ‘Blonde’. Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless is a whole different project. I won’t spend any time on Endless for the sake of brevity but I will say it is very cool and leave it at that.
I was about five and a half hours into my drive back to Dayton when Frank Ocean’s Blonde dropped. I don’t think I would even say I was “excited” when I saw that it was finally here. It was (and hopefully there’s some way to say this without just totally coming off as the most stereotypical pretentious music fan ever) incredibly surreal. The album had sort of stopped existing as an actual album in my mind for a while then.
The delays, the misinformation, the complete and utter lack of communication from Frank and his team regarding this album. The original Tumblr post announcing the original release date of July 2015. The library card. The New York Times article. The live stream. Oh god the live stream. Eventually the hype to this album fell off the scales in the best way possible. While some would think, and for good reason, that the drama leading up to the project would only raise expectations to an unreachable amount, this is not the case. For some reason the hype for this album set the bar so ridiculously low that there was almost no way it could be a disappointment. The fact that this album exists is darn near enough. The fact that we can actually go into our iTunes library and finally listen to Frank Ocean’s new album already surpasses any expectations I had for this. While the hype and drama surrounding this album is obviously separate from the album itself, similar to Kanye’s massive The Life of Pablo earlier this year, the album and atmosphere surrounding the project go hand in hand. Anyways.
I bit the bullet, took the massive cellular data charge and streamed the album in my final hour to Dayton. Using what remained of my Apple Music trial I got for Coloring Book I put on Blonde as I drove through Indianapolis, the final track finished as I parked at Irving Commons.
It was so, so disappointing. It should have been perfect. I should have been blown away. I was listening to the album I’ve been waiting for all summer as I get back to the place I’ve been waiting for all summer. But it just wasn’t. It was boring, unremarkable, and made me feel like I wasn’t supposed to be listening to it. Like this was Frank’s personal project that he clearly made for his own private collection, not to be released commercially. The most devastating realization I had halfway through the album was that this was nowhere close to channel ORANGE. In channel ORANGE, Frank put out what is probably my favorite album that isn’t by someone named Kanye West. I was waiting patiently for channel ORANGE 2. Blonde is not that.
I tried to take notes on my phone as I was listening. All I got was: “60 minutes of intro songs” and a frowny face.
Blonde is incredibly self-indulgent. There is absolutely no doubt that this is the album Frank wanted to make. Perhaps he was pushed around by Apple in regards to release dates, and marketing of the album in order to draw a little more commercial success. But when it comes to the actual sounds on the album, it is an album made by Frank, for Frank. Which explains exactly why I was so completely disappointed the first listen through. I’m sure Frank knows most watching wanted another version of channel ORANGE. But that’s not what he wanted. And thank goodness.
48 hours later, I’m not sure if I’ve ever done such a complete 180° on an album. While what I just said is still very true about Blonde, it helps, not hurts the album. This project is more than a channel ORANGE 2.0 could ever be. Frank made an album that no one could possibly have known they wanted so badly. It is a completely new side of Frank that I never would have expected to get to see. While on channel ORANGE it seems as though Frank is taking us with him as he tells these stories – whether it’s a love affair, or super rich kids who smoke way too much weed – it never seems as though Frank is telling his stories. He plays the role of a storyteller. On Blonde it’s very clear how personal this project is. From exploring the state of his mental thoughts out loud to delving into his strange infatuation with cars, each song here seems to be coming from Frank. We even get lyrics and skits in reference to Frank’s Odd Future era, where he spent his teenage, pre-stardom days rolling around with the likes of Tyler the Creator or Earl Sweatshirt. This era has been left in the dark almost entirely when it comes to the content of Frank’s music, but Blonde holds nothing back.
And that’s what is really important about this album. It is a completely new sound and form of experimentation for Frank. Of course his voice, his melodies, even his flow and lyricism is often times reminiscent of what we’ve grown to know and love but this, still, is a whole new animal. Once I was able to accept that Frank did not want to give us the Frank album we wanted, it became an exponentially better project for me. I guess in hindsight I really should have thrown my expectations out the window considering days before release it was discovered that Boys Don’t Cry wasn’t the title. Pretty much from the get-go this hasn’t been what I expected.
This album is basically one hour of really beautiful sounds. There are rarely any moments on this album where whatever going on isn’t super pretty. Even the track “Be Yourself” which features one of Frank’s childhood friend’s mother giving a quick dissertation on the dangers of alcohol, marijuana, and growing up, has a gorgeous instrumentation playing in the background.
Instead of having several moments of just complete jaw-dropping awesomeness like channel ORANGE did, Blonde instead opts to create a more consistent atmosphere the whole way through. The songs blend seamlessly into one another, as if he’s not even trying. Of course there are still a few moments in the album that really stand out.
The opening track “Nikes” is such a strange, other-worldly song that serves as the perfect introduction to Blonde. However the album reaches perfection 2 minutes and 55 seconds into the track “Self Control” when Frank gives an outro that just makes you want to breakdown and cry it’s so beautiful. I lack the technical knowledge to really know what he’s doing here with his voice but it is one of the many times the Bon Iver or James Blake influences make themselves clear on this album. “Ivy” is another standout track that is probably as close to channel ORANGE as we get on this album with the catchy opening line “I thought that I was dreaming/ When you said you loved me”. André 3000 once again emerges from the caves of wherever he is hiding to lend another phenomenal verse for Frank in the track “Solo (Reprise)”. While the penultimate song “Godspeed” matches that “oh-my-gosh-this-makes-me-feel-so-amazing-what-do-I-do” feeling first brought out earlier in “Self Control”. The beat switch at the end of “Nights” also demands a shout out as it takes an already strong song to a whole different level. These are the moments where this whole music thing just seems way too easy for Frank. It’s so effortless it hurts.
The lyrics on this project are much more mature than anything we’ve heard from Frank. They’re probably some of my favorite words spoken on an album ever. Just to grab one example, like in the chorus for the song “Solo” when Frank bounces over the lyrics: “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/ Inhale, inhale there’s heaven/ There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky/ Inhale, in hell there’s heaven”. Frank’s grown up a gay, black, weed-smoking, acid-popping, hip-hop artist. Pretty much everything about him is frowned upon by the conventional values or standards of society. Shouldn’t be too surprising that Frank finds a little bit of heaven in what most people consider “hell”.
And oh man the features. The features. I’m not even really sure what to make of this to be honest. A list of production credits was included with the very exclusive and elusive magazine that was put out at a small number of pop-up stores this weekend across the country. The list has some names you’d expect to see, the usual suspects. People like Kanye, Tyler the Creator, Pharrell, Beyoncé, you wouldn’t be that surprised to see on a Frank Ocean list. However then you get to names like David Bowie, The Beatles, Fish, Brian Eno, and my personal favorite: Yung Lean. Yung Lean is a 20-year-old cloud/trap rapper from Sweden that has garnered a small cult following along with the rest of his crew “S A D B O Y S”. Somehow Frank managed to calm Yung Lean down enough to deliver one of the many stand out features on the album in his “Self Control” chorus.
Once again, a Yung Lean chorus on a Frank Ocean album is something I never would have expected to work. But it did. This whole album works. I’m always apprehensive writing reviews for albums like this since I’m very nervous I’m not doing it justice. I’m sort of way out of my league here. This album is just so focused, and so strong. There are a few times where it does get a little too into itself, just like Kanye’s The Life of Pablo. For instance at the end of one of the most gorgeous songs “Ivy” when Frank once again goes into this incredibly high-pitched, auto-tuned singing, only to sing some random words in a very grating, unsettling tone. And I know this is on purpose because on the song directly before that, he uses the same vocal effect but in a much more pleasing way. So it seems like sometimes Frank wants to make it a little too clear that he’s different.
Like “ok Frank we get it. You’re super artsy and hipster, we get it, it’s cool. You don’t have to put a flat out obnoxious scream to show us”.
Also the little skit “Facebook Story” is a little cringey. Seems like something out of the self-satisfying “anti-social media” rhetoric you’d see in a grade school talent show – just a better version of it I guess.
All in all, I firmly believe Frank has put out the best album of the year so far. It has the enjoyability of The Life of Pablo or, Coloring Book while also matching the impressiveness and strength of something like James Blakes’ The Colour In Anything. I don’t know if it’s better, or if I like it more than channel ORANGE but, hopefully it’s clear at this point that that doesn’t really matter.
The painful, agonizing 5 year wait could not have come to a better end. Blonde proves that while he’s only two albums in, Frank Ocean is one of the great talents working right now. I love this album. I’ve listened to it I think over 20 times through now, and I’m guessing I’m gonna go listen to it again right now.
See ya in like, 15 years when the next Frank Ocean album drops.
Least Favorite Tracks: Facebook Story, Pretty Sweet
Favorite Tracks: Self Control, Godspeed, Nikes, Solo, Ivy