By Robert Masiello
Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow-up to "Channel Orange" is marred by distractions. Its long gestation is a distraction. The visual “teaser” album Endless (which dropped days before the proper album) is a distraction. His tumultuous relationship with record label Def Jam is a distraction.
And while these distractions do generate well-deserved hype, they also, in a way, detract from the 28-year-old songwriter’s own humanity. Ocean himself acknowledges this on the final track: “Sometimes I feel like I’m a god, but I’m not a god, if I was I don’t know which heaven would have me.” The hype surrounding "Blonde" essentially morphed into a sense of entitlement. Fans didn’t want a new Frank Ocean album, they deserved one.
Delay after delay, one speculated release date after another, and many cryptic hints later, "Blonde" finally came to fruition. It’s a long, shapeshifting beast that showcases its creator’s many talents. Unlike "Channel Orange," which consisted of songs seemingly written from the perspective of distinct characters, "Blonde" delves deep into Ocean’s own psyche as a songwriter and human being.
The first track on "Blonde." and a single, “Nikes” is somewhat of a red herring, but still no less than a classic. Ocean’s voice is mechanically altered, as if a vocoder is gripping his lungs. It also contains the album’s most obvious social commentary, while the rest is more confessional in nature. Ocean effortlessly denounces materialism, but the real-gut punch comes when he addresses even darker corners of our country’s political and social climate. “RIP Trayvon, that kid looked just like me,” he eulogizes, his voice warped yet somehow still resigned. It’s the first show-stopping moment on an album littered with them.
Elsewhere, "Blonde" blossoms with expert song craft, the kind that forces you to pause and rewind 30 seconds to hear certain segments again. “White Ferrari” begins innocuously, until about the two-minute mark, when Ocean’s multi-tracked vocals swell up over a light guitar strum. It builds like a storm as Ocean, in possibly his most moving vocal performance to date, wails “Mind over matter is magic/I do magic,” and the instrumentation becomes chaotic. He could have chosen to ride this wave of distortion and vocal prowess for at least another minute, but instead everything quickly simmers, segueing into a hallucinatory poem recited by Justin Vernon. It’s an interesting trick on Ocean’s part, not quite giving a listener the full climax they expect. But like a true artist, he leaves the listener begging for more.
The 17 tracks here flourish with guest appearances, none of which overshadow Ocean himself. Even Beyonce’s contribution is limited to a few hushed vocal runs on the sublime, dreamy “Pink and White.” Andre 3000 is given the most prominent appearance, and he rips through a verse that’s equal parts yearning and resilient. Sonically, the album features elements of classic rock and psychedelia in ways that recall Miguel’s "Wildheart," although "Blonde" is far more stripped-down and intimate.
"Blonde" pauses for a few unconventional interludes. The first is “Be Yourself,” which is actually an authentic voicemail from the mother of Ocean’s childhood friend. The speaker advices “Be yourself and know that that’s good enough… Do not consume alcohol, do not smoke marijuana… This is Mom, call me, bye.” A cursory glimpse of the full transcript may lead someone to assume Ocean is mocking this woman, but the reality seems to be that he is expressing a profound respect for her. Her words and guidance are immortalized by including them on this record. Later in the album, French producer SebastiAn reflects upon technology’s influence on modern relationships.
Even when "Blonde" deals with longing and unrequited love, the lyrics never veer into jealousy or retribution. “Keep a place for me,” goes the chorus of “Self Control,” “I’ll sleep between ya’ll, it’s nothing.” On “Godspeed” he promises another, “You’ll have this place to call home, always.” He could be addressing a lover, an ex, or a family member, and the song’s ambiguity only adds to the overwhelming power of his words. Gospel singer Kim Burrell hovers over the track’s final minute like a ghost, pledging love “until the time we die.” The whole thing could easily come off as hackneyed, but it’s unflinching sincerity elevates it to something more like a prayer than a song.
Upon first listen, "Blonde" hardly feels like a radical album. It’s too aurally pleasant, and too introverted. It is at times political, though hardly radical in that sense. Even Ocean’s much-publicized bisexuality hardly feels radical anymore. But "Blonde" is radical in its commitment to love. Throughout the course of the album, Ocean expands upon his love of music, romantic love, love for himself, love for his mother, love for a black child whose life was taken too soon.
Uncertainty and doubt are explored with a certain gracefulness utterly lacking in most modern pop. He is warm and empathetic at a time when icy detachment is more fashionable. And in a world that constantly feels like it’s breaking apart at the seams, it’s hard to imagine an album more important than this one.