August 20, 2016. The date that we were reacquainted with Frank Ocean. It’s been a long wait since the colourful and kaleidoscopic Channel Orange made sunny days that little bit warmer, and grey wet days that little bit more melancholy. Ocean revealed himself as a master chameleon on his debut, jumping from one genre into another like a pinball with extreme focus.
One minute, he was an R&B smooth-crooner singing about the “Sweet Life”, the next guiding us through “Pyramids” in a dance-psych fog, and the next tenderly, powerfully, singing about “Pink Matter”. It propelled Ocean straight to the top of the pack, marking him as a truly gifted songwriter, one of the best of his generation. The ascent was fast and sudden, just as fast and sudden as his subsequent fade into obscurity. He practically vanished, bar the odd Tumblr post every now and then, for 4 long years.
Then, in the spring of 2016, murmurings of an album began. Malay, Ocean’s long-time producer, told Pitchfork, “he’s been working super hard… I’m excited for everyone to hear it”. Then not long after James Blake told Complex, “he is onto something, he really is”.
More murmurings. Chance The Rapper then told Complex, “I know he’s away making a masterpiece”. This was more album talk over a two-month period than we got in the previous three and a half years. Excitement was building. People were starting to believe. But the scepticism was still palpable. The album had to be heard to be truly real.
Fast-forward three months and it’s real. Finally. Blonde is here. In all its understated, delicate, emotive, sophisticated beauty. There’s barely a beat anywhere on the album. Instead, each track is a moment that Ocean shares with a textured backdrop, shaped by keys, guitar, synths, or strings. It makes for a dramatically intimate listen.
There’s a striking line in woozy opener “Nikes”: “RIP Trayvon, that ni**a looked just like me”. It’s perhaps the most compelling moment on the album, but only because Ocean’s never been one for stark outspoken, politically charged commentary.
His remark in “Nikes” is a blunt reminder of how the socio-political landscape has changed while he’s been away, and for one that so intrinsically sees life as love, an event like this would have an understandably profound effect. But that’s the first and last of that kind of talk on “Blonde”. Its purpose is acting as a 4-year long diary entry, dominated by love stories.
In “Solo”, Ocean speaks of unrequited love: “It’s just me and no you, stayed up ‘til my phone died”. He does so as well in “Good Guy”: “I know you don’t need me right now”. The two tracks consist of just Ocean’s vocal over beautiful soulful, richly warm keyboard parts. In “Self Control”, Ocean speaks of a short-lived, incompatible relationship that left its mark on him: “Keep a place for me”, he hopefully asks his past lover. A graceful guitar part provides the sole accompaniment.
“White Ferrari” is love in its purest and most classic form: “I care for you still and I will forever, that was my part of the deal”. It’s a promise bound in the place of love him and the song’s subject are or were in, and “[they’re] so okay here, [they’re] doing fine”. There’s nowhere else Ocean would rather be. Somewhere, anywhere, bound to someone.
It all unfolds as hovering synths give way to a minimal guitar part. Even the two tracks which are driven by a beat, the breezy Beyonce-featuring “Pink + White” and the bright-yet-dusky “Nights” are still wonderful accomplishments of restrained song composing. Nothing in the production steals focus from Ocean’s tales of love; it’s there to reinforce the feelings, those of hurt, insecurity, and hope. It’s beautiful and bare. Like the way Ocean lays his heart out.
With Blonde, we find Frank Ocean at his most vulnerable and most honest. He’s created a remarkably intimate, masterfully put together piece of work that offers a jigsaw of how his heart loves, has been loved, and has loved. You can relate to the experiences – maybe not all, but some – and if you can’t right now, you know you will be able to eventually. Because these are stories of love. And we all feel them.
Purchase Frank Ocean’s Blonde album on iTunes here.
Words by Oli Kuscher