Blonde Album Review
Boys Don’t Cry
Released August 20, 2016
Genre: Alternative R&B, Art Pop, Neo Soul, Minimalism, Ambient, Post-R&B (?)
This review has taken a while so let’s get a broad statement out of the way firsthand: this is Frank Ocean’s best record as of yet. Following the monstrous success of channel ORANGE, it appeared more & more unlikely that Ocean could ever surpass, let alone replicate, an album of that magnitude. Alas, he’s done just that, and more, on this latest record of his – a record that fans have been waiting four years for and one that will consistently challenge fans upon listen.
Unlike his musical peers (Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West), Frank is not concerned with making brash, outlandish political/cultural statements commenting on the climate of 2016 (the verse on “Nikes” about Trayvon Martin is as political as it gets.) Instead, Blonde is more concerned with what’s going on on the inside, specifically within Frank himself; the album’s an emotionally rich, musically sparse, and minimally composed meditation of love, heartache, introspection, sorrow, nostalgia, and pain – told in the quietest way by one of the best songwriters in the R&B genre. It appears that those four year following channel ORANGE were composed of more than Frank trolling his fans.
The album opens with “Nikes”, a woozy and atmospheric opener that propels the album into its groove & tempo. “Ivy”, a guitar led track, features great songwriting before building up to a few seconds of passion, fury, and intensity to the point that Frank literally screams. “Pink + White” is a track that seems like a common predecessor from channel ORANGE but its lyricism is a huge departure from the tender caress of cO, and is a much more cynical and truth-shattering track that is cleverly hidden from surface-level listeners.
“Solo” finds Frank returning to his R&B style, but with some minimal instrumentation; the result is a bare bones meditation on loneliness. Ocean shows himself experimenting with more guitars and sparse melodies – a big shift from channel ORANGE’s lush and eccentric ways. “Skyline To’s” guitar driven lead floats comfortably over the woozy keyboards and field recordings – the drums muffled deep into the recesses of the mixing; “Nights” is the album at its most maximal, and “Close To You” finds Ocean treading the experimental loop trends last visited on “Pilot Jones”. With using all that he needs, Ocean manages to convey richer themes and poignant messages, more dire than what we’re used to. It’s a spectacular and stunning display of skill and proves just how much Frank has grown as an musician, writer, and artist.
A bigger addition to Ocean’s sound is guitar; opposed to cO’s electronica-driven tracks, Blonde heavily utilizes the guitar, which complement Ocean’s airy vocals and drums. Sometimes, it’s just guitar and keyboards; Ocean strips back his sound to bare bones minimalism – both musically & contextually. Ocean’s skill showcased here is how he’s able to find the root, cause, and ardent core of life’s everyday quandaries, and passionately and evocatively make it seem drastically urgent, as if we should care. We do, somehow, and Ocean’s instrumentation is concise, clean, and tonally apt to the situations/predicaments that arise throughout the record. Perhaps the greatest feat Blonde has accomplished, is making himself much more transparent to the public eye despite his eccentric public activity (or lack of, at times).
In regards to eccentricity, Ocean’s tease of Blonde resulted in a visual album entitled Endless. Endless, is a rather inconsistent project. While the music has some brilliant moments by way of guitar licks and crescendos, seeing guys in designer sweaters make a staircase to the sound of experimental ambient music rarely makes me care. It’s nice to hear the songs transition from one to another though, as if we are hearing Frank’s musical progression compacted into forty-six minutes, but Endless is background music for people who like to pay attention to background music. It’s nice, to say the least, but nowhere near as coherent, clean, and concise as Blonde. Some moments, however, are on par, maybe even ahead, of Blonde however.
In the “Boys Don’t Cry” zine, Frank Ocean shared a list of his favorite films (a superb taste, if I do say so myself), a personal diary entry, and even on the cover he’s naked (or half naked?). He samples an eclectic range of bands that, most likely, the typical Frank Ocean fan would never listen to (Gang of Four, The Beatles, Elliot Smith, The Mohawks). Along with film tastes and samples, Ocean goes on to bring aboard an array of features, that are subtly hidden within the tracks, such as Yung Lean, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Jonny Greenwood, James Blake, etc.).
Long story short, Blonde is Frank Ocean offering himself to everyone; it’s intimate without feeling overbearing, and bare without feeling hollow. Passionate passages like on “Self Control” & “Godspeed” take the sentimental pits of channel ORANGE and somehow elevate it new heights. Vocal interludes such as “Be Yourself” and “Facebook Story” diversify the tracks while also complementing Ocean’s vision. Noisy passages such as the intro to “Pretty Sweet” and the sporadic moments of “Futura Free” (especially the spur-of-the-moment, raw final 3 minutes) take us into his psyche – a messy, brilliant, and inspired artist.
Blonde is a record, and exercise, in nostalgia, disillusionment, and romanticism. It’s a feeling, and phase, practically everyone goes through and one that we can all relate too. The music here is bare, stripped down, and can easily be taken for background music (sans 3-4 tracks). But once Frank’s vocals come on, the song’s tone is shifted, as well as your attention, to the a 28-year old artist who is following no one but himself at this point. Frank has always been looking into the past (his first mixtape is even titled nostalgia, ULTRA); but he’s also been looking into the future as well – where he’ll end up, what will happen next, what to do after this.
If channel ORANGE was him at his most straightforward and blatant, Blonde is Ocean at his most ambiguous, yet it’s laser focused thematically. Frank captures the emptiness, malaise, and despondency that comes with life with a compelling and stunning voice without seeming too indulgent; and while he may seem to be the center of it all here, he sounds much more than an artist saying what he sees to a crowd. He sounds like a friend, one who has been subjected to feelings, ideas, and experiences that circulate around loneliness and is filled with sorrow, sadness, and pain. His voice ventures into the areas that we’ve only been to a handful of times, luckily, and it bleeds and hurts. But it also consoles, comforts, and – opposed to the zine title – cries.
PRETTY NEAT MUSIC
FAV TRACKS: Nikes, Ivy, Pink + White, Solo, Skyline To, Self Control, Nights, Pretty Sweet, White Ferrari, Seigfried ,Godspeed, Futura Free
LEAST FAV TRACK: Solo (Reprise) [kind of. absolute fire of a verse tho, just did not like it in context with the album, tonally. i don’t hate André 3000!]