We Waited Forever for Frank Ocean's 'Blonde'—But It Was Worth It
Unpacking Ocean's latest Opus
Unpacking Ocean's latest Opus
Text: William Defebaugh
In the last two weeks, you've likely read the words "Frank" and "Ocean" more times than you thought possible. You got excited when it was announced that his long-awaited follow-up album to 2012's Channel Orange would be delivered from up above on August 5. You woke up last Friday to a maelstrom of messages about the record finally being released, only to discover the discord as to whether or not it was really the album. You cried out with your own rendition of Rihanna's "What Now" when you realized that it wasn't—and that Endless was a different project entirely, only available for consumption in video format on Apple Music. You thought you were so smart for keeping your Tidal subscription after Lemonade, because you were so sure that Ocean's new album would be another exclusive on Jay-Z's streaming service (it was, after all, Watch The Throne that introduced the musician to the world). But you were wrong.
If you're anything like us, when the news broke this weekend that the poet Frank had finally, finally released the real album, you were jaded—unwilling to believe, out of fear of being scorned again. But alas, you signed into your new Apple Music account anyway (because yes, you got one), and discovered that Ocean had in fact delivered a new album called Blond. (It's not Boys Don't Cry, but at this point, whatever.) Skepticism quickly reared its ugly head as you noticed that the album art read Blond while Apple spelled it Blonde, but you were willing to overlook this small discrepancy, because the music was right there, ready to hit play. And when you did, the world melted away.
On Blonde, Ocean tackles the years of hype and pressure by simply ignoring it. While Kanye West might have felt the need for explosive fireworks on an album that was in the works for nearly half a decade, Ocean strips himself to the core, presenting a body of work that is spare, and gloriously so. Rather than heavy beats and complex constructions, he offers melodies that echo like lullabies, often set against the simple strumming of an electric guitar, and Ocean's smooth vocals and lovelorn lyrics that feel more like spoken word poetry.
Of course, that's not to say that the album doesn't have its share of fanfare—but even that is handled with subtlety. When Beyoncé appears on the beautiful, oceanic (as in beach-y) track "Pink + White," it is with nearly-wordless backup vocals, only recognizable because of her prolific voice. Kendrick Lamar makes an uncharacteristically quiet appearance on "Skyline To," simply there to echo Ocean's sentiments (of which there are many). André 3000 dials it up a bit more on "Solo (Reprise)," which might be the album's most hype track. Kim Burrell connects the album to other gospel-infused works in the current pop canon on "Godspeed."
The album's lyrics are something else to be unpacked entirely, dropping scattered hints about Ocean's famously now-private life. On the dreamy track "Self Control," he offers the most direct allusion to the album's title: "You cut your hair, but you used to live a blonded life." On another, "Good Guy," he makes what is surely a reference to his much-discussed sexuality: "Here's to the gay bar you took me to."
And then there is the record's epic list of producers and engineers, which includes: James Blake, Jonny Greenwood, Matt Mysko, Sam Petts-Davis (The Colour in Anything, A Moon Shaped Pool), Bob Ludwig (the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana), Joe Visciano (Blackstar, In Colour), Mike Dean and Tom Elmhirst (Back to Black, 19, 25), and Jeff Ellis (Channel Orange).
Music legends such as the Beatles and David Bowie, as well as 2016 all-stars like Pharrell, Kanye West, Arca, among others, are also listed in the album's credits, which were presented as one long list, along with the aforementioned names, in Boys Don't Cry—the zine that Ocean released on Saturday in select pop-up shops, along with a version of Blonde with an alternate order. (The same day, he also dropped the visually stunning video for the album's first track, "Nikes"—worthy of many more words than a parenthetical aside.)
But perhaps the album's most important and representative feature comes from Ocean's own mother, Katonya Breaux Riley. On "Be Yourself," she offers the following warning (amidst some rather preachy advice about substance abuse) in the form of a voicemail: "Listen, stop trying to be somebody else. Don't try to be someone else. be yourself and know that that's good enough. Don't try to be someone else, don't try to be like someone else, don't try to act like someone else, be yourself. Be secure with yourself. Rely and trust upon your own decisions, on your own beliefs."
When put into the context of the album's rollout (which, in retrospect, can be seen as either a genius marketing strategy or an all around mess), these words speak volume to who Ocean is as an artist—and perhaps, if we can go so far as to say so, what he may have discovered in the creation of his latest opus. The world has been telling him for years, what his music should be,what to release and when, even what his sexuality is. With Blonde, he has thrown away all expectations and requirements, and delivered an album that finds Frank Ocean at his most unadulterated and pure.