Frank Ocean’s long-awaited sophomore album was thrust upon us unexpectedly- in the middle of the night – following the surprise release of Endless; a visual album that depicted Ocean constructing a staircase during a 40 minute video. The film is enveloped by dreamy, acoustic melodies emphasising the long artistic processes required to produce an album (at one point we actually watch Ocean watching paint dry), something that, in our fast-paced culture, is too often overlooked and devalued. Then, Frank dropped the single, ‘Nikes’, that opens Blonde, and a magazine, twinned with the album, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (previously assumed to be the album name).
Anyone with an interest in rap culture already knows that the road to Blonde was a confusing one, tangled up with name changes and constant false leads; alongside varying tongue-in-cheek allusions from Ocean himself. It was generally accepted that Blonde, no matter how good, could not live up to the hype or its predecessor, Grammy-winning Channel Orange which single-handedly drew out a more introspective and independent style of R&B. It seems however, that the submerged, dislocated feeling of Blonde – whilst being almost entirely dislocated from Channel Orange – can find itself a place in contemporary music.
It is not so much indie-pop sellout as Channel Orange – it isn’t trying to be
The album opens with single ‘Nikes’, alongside an accompanying video. This is Ocean at his best; the disconnected, dreamy melody seems to be floating on water, looking out towards a jumbled mirage of sounds and colours. Both the song and video address some of the more complicated aspects of Ocean’s life: his obsessions with cars versus his own personal struggles with his sexuality, and what it means to be ‘masculine’, or even ‘straight’. This song sets the tone for the album; it is not so much indie-pop sellout as Channel Orange – it isn’t trying to be. It is a hazy whirlwind of emotions that sees Ocean’s voice distorted, rectified, and distorted again. ‘Nikes’ is a bite size portion of what Ocean is about: his voice is haunting, alluring, all the while describing what it is to be in love; what it is to not be in love; to just want to have sex – a relatable tale that gives us a deeply personal insight into one of rap’s most reclusive figures.
‘Ivy’ sees Blonde take a more pop-esque turn; it has a definable hook, and speeds up the tempo from the slow, seething ‘Nikes’. Directly after this is ‘Pink + White’ (the most obvious ‘pop’ song on the album), featuring Beyonce as a backing vocalist, though she remains uncredited in the song title. Unlike many other albums featuring collaborations and replete with obvious references to other artists, there is a sense that this album is deeply and personally Ocean’s; many artists (more than 30, in fact) may have helped Ocean to create his album, but despite the teamwork involved, it is distinctly his. Other standouts on the album are ‘Skyline To’, featuring Kendrick Lamar (also uncredited on the song but his distinctive voice belies him), ‘Self Control’ (a song doubling as a shy nod towards Ocean’s sexuality, featuring the lines ‘I’ll be the boyfriend/ In your wet dreams tonight’), and ‘White Ferrari’, a slow melody featuring James Blake, demanding nothing but personal introspection.
The album moves on seamlessly, constantly changing tone and style, culminating in what is undoubtedly the highlight, ‘Nights’, in which the jumpy beat suddenly switches, leaving us with a hauntingly jaded chorus-like chant (‘every night fucks every day up/ every day patches the night up’), a halting evocation of Ocean’s own personal demons. Yet,this could be what makes Ocean so great: whilst it is common place for artists to evoke emotion with a song, Frank is one of the rare few who can speak so sparingly about himself, forcing his audience to look into themselves to connect with what he lays bare.
Despite all this, it is true that Blonde does not fulfill traditional expectations of R&B, let alone the almost total lack of correlation between itself and Channel Orange. Yet maybe we shouldn’t expect something from an artist (quick albums, pop-style hooks), nor should we have the same unrealistic expectations out of life. Blonde is jumbled, wholly confusing at times, hauntingly poetic at others – it is a deeply personal portrayal of the self, of life; no matter how confusing or mystifying that may be. It might be a little unconventional, yes, but as Frank himself said, ‘I don’t want straight – a little bent is good.’.