I have a difficult time describing Frank Ocean’s music. Perhaps it’s a surreal introspection of the most morose and neurotic reactions to something tragic, like the loss of love and the painful journey that follows it. Maybe it’s a conceptual project of youthful hope and fervor in a world that is far less than ideal. Maybe it’s just sad.
Regardless, Ocean’s new album Blonde is brilliant.
Blonde is Frank Ocean’s follow-up, more than four years later, to 2012’s Channel Orange. Its release has concluded a lengthy period of anticipation for fresh material. Blonde draws on a number of guests and sources of inspiration, including Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000 and Pharrell Williams.
Before discussing Blonde, it would be apt to mention a few points about Channel Orange and why it was an exceptional glimpse of Ocean’s originality. A large portion of Orange’s allure lies in its unwillingness to indulge the melodic demands of most popular music. It consistently maintains a gritty and dissonant flow, like a fine grunge album. Periodically, Ocean decides to lead the vision into an epic number, like “Super Rich Kids” or “Pyramids.” On these tracks, layers and layers of warm production synthesize to produce truly captivating harmonic tones and colors. On his first studio album, Ocean exhibited a mastery of nuance that most artists yearn to attain.
Blonde offers a dazzling return of all of Orange’s memorable traits. At the forefront, it is abounding, vivid poetry that ignites with “Nikes,” the first track of and only single from the album. This number begins with a slow-motion jam that creates a type of irony with the extreme hype that surrounded the album’s release. Rather than burst forth with ardor, Ocean merely strolls through the front gates. He begins the first verse with his voice pitched up several octaves, again delaying the album’s grand revelation. Around the last quarter of the song, the pitch effect breaks and Ocean’s ranging baritone is heard for the first time, for the duration of the tune’s final verse. If “Nikes” is Ocean’s welcoming address, then perhaps “Ivy,” the album’s second track, initiates the true dreamlike tide of Blonde.
“Ivy’s” echoey, trembling guitar loop makes it feel like a mellow, unconcerned trance. “Pink + White” follows, employing a harmonic progression that yields a feeling of extreme motion, almost like flying, despite possessing a relatively slow tempo. This track also features backing vocals by Beyoncé that greatly contribute to the surreal portrait painted thus far. “Solo,” two tracks later, marks a color change early on in the album, bringing the tone to a more gradual pensiveness that reaches a climactic pinnacle with “Nights.” This track explores two supporting guitar samples that are thrown back and forth, creating an energetic commotion. Yet, this culminates in an abstract rock-driven transition that entirely shifts Blonde’s atmosphere, all within one track. The music grounds itself again, this time taking on a bitter nature. This portion of the album resembles less of a dream but rather a discordant nightmare. “Solo (Reprise)” offers a glimpse of André 3000’s talent, as he raps several verses at lightning speed over minor triads and ominous bass drops. The next several tracks play like a string of bad memories, forming a manic trip that finally resolves with “Futura Free.” This last song resembles the calm after a storm — Ocean’s resigned — but not necessarily negative, reflection on life and music. The overall tonal arch of the album offers an interesting contrast that is implicitly suggestive of a dream that turns into a nightmare, or a relationship that doesn’t last.
Ocean explores a number of topics on Blonde, yet all seem to support thematic variations of self-identity. One such expression involves Ocean’s identity as an artist at this point in his career; perhaps “Nikes” addresses this motive most thoroughly. When Ocean’s pitched-up voice finally breaks, he first sings “We’ll let you guys prophesy/We’ll let you guys prophesy/We gon’ see the future first…” Despite the fanatical speculation that occurred prior to Blonde’s release, Ocean makes it clear that he is ultimately in charge of his artistic concepts and methods. Again on “Futura Free,” Ocean sings “I’m just a guy I’m not a god/Sometimes I feel like I’m a god but I’m not a god.” This is an indication that, although his art has remained his own object, Ocean does feel and question the effects of stardom on his ego. The album also discusses the implications of social strife or adversity on one’s identity. On “Solo (Reprise),” André 3000 sings “So low that I don’t get high no more/When I ‘geronimo! ‘I just go ‘eh.’” He also raps “So low that I can admit/When I hear that another kid is shot by the popo/It ain’t an event no more.” The latter line is a direct reference to the recent string of high-profile police assaults on young Black Americans and their debilitating effects on one’s sensitivity.
The former line mentions the diminishing ability of alcohol and drugs to help alleviate stress. Drug-use is mentioned throughout Blonde, often as a way of briefly leaving one identity and assuming an entirely different one. Finally, Blonde’s foremost comment on identity deals with love and relationship. The chorus of “Ivy” reads “It started from nothing/I could hate you now/It’s quite alright to hate me now/When we both know that deep down/The feeling still deep down is good.” Regardless of how poorly a romantic relationship may leave off, does it fundamentally change the identities of those involved? If there is still a good feeling “deep down,” perhaps love does not possess that altering power.
Nick Swan is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]