The buildup to Frank Ocean’s second studio album, Blond(e), reminds me of the first time I waltzed into one of the darkest corners of YouTube. The lull between the popular R&B artist’s records was analogous to watching some dweeb squeeze his juicy cyst on camera. You quiver as he muscles his grubby fingers into the active volcano jutting from his face, patiently waiting for its contents to erupt into the stratosphere. After ten minutes of wrestling with it, fluid finally blasts off, giving you a one-two combo of satisfaction and personal shame. Waiting for Blonde’s arrival was like watching this kid squeeze his cyst endlessly: when I got the content I desperately craved, I felt conflicted upon receiving it.
Four years is hardly punishment in the music world, but Frank Ocean’s rabid fan base would say otherwise. Following Channel Orange’s critical success (including 4 Grammy award nominations, winning Best Urban Contemporary Album), fans were treated to more delays than Wake County’s inclement weather policy during the school year.
Fast forward to August 19th, 2016, when Odd Future’s avant-garde breakout star released a video album by the name of Endless. I can’t comment on its artistic value nor its relevance, but I’ve heard it’s nothing more than Ocean tending to a building project. Allegedly there’s a 140-hour long cut, however there isn’t enough Thai food in the world to infiltrate my bowels and warrant six days of serial shitting and binge-watching television. Powering through each extended edition of The Hobbit trilogy is grueling enough.
Blonde came into existence the day after Endless baffled Ocean’s audience. It’s shadowed by sky-high expectations that will unfortunately haunt the album during its first couple weeks of infancy. It’s an honest and punchy record that will quell listeners’ demands briefly, only to inspire another cycle of impatience before his third effort is released. It’s too bad that music is subjected to election-like treatment where woeful citizens pressure politicians into campaigning when the next election is 4 years away. Great art should not have a deadline, alas that argument will be saved for another day. Let’s dig into Frank Ocean’s long-anticipated sophomore album, Blonde, shall we?
Barreling into “Nikes”, the album’s opening track and lead single, we’re welcomed by the sounds of ethereal beauty that’s characteristic of Ocean’s previous efforts. It’s promptly ruined when a cartoonish voice laced with helium chimes in after 30 seconds. It sounds like an ill-practiced prostate exam where the doctor forgets to lubricate his gloved finger before snaking it into his patient. The beat proceeds to get more frantic as this foreign presence continues its torturous melodies. Frank’s beloved, melancholic charm doesn’t take over until a full 3 minutes into the song. He commands the lead single in its closing minutes, but it’s hard to get hooked from the outset thanks to the love baby of Nicki Minaj and a helium tank from Walmart.
I really wish we could’ve kicked things off with “Ivy” because it’s a poetic, emotional rollercoaster without ridiculous production strategies interfering with his art. A high-pitched scream tinged with electronic currents near the end convinced me that an alien species hijacked my audio file, but that’s irrelevant when you’ve been serenaded by Frank’s heartfelt performance. “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me. It started from nothing, I had no chance to prepare. I couldn’t see you coming.” Nope, none of you were ever prepared.
“Pink + White” boasts an instrumental designed to hold your hand while skipping through a field of daisies or something. Pharrell doesn’t even need to stamp his name on it; he’s the first artist you’d think of when these Summer vibes sound off in the beginning. Odd Future leader, Tyler, the Creator, apparently had a hand in the production, but the acclaimed bleakness of his sound is absent. Queen Beyoncé also makes an unannounced cameo with her soothing, harmonious melodies. It’s a welcome addition that may not have been possible if she suffocated in a freak accident involving couch cushions (otherwise known as Jay-Z’s lips).
Mama Ocean spits a verse on “Be Yourself”. Not really, but she leaves a powerful voicemail that shoots it straight and doesn’t get buried underneath cryptic lyrics. I guess it serves as extra motivation in place of your goofy parents’ lectures. Or maybe she’s filling the void for those who don’t have parents to speak mind-blowing truths.
Frank immediately disobeys his mother in “Solo’s” first bar, declaring, “Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself, gone off tabs of that acid”. I get it: children are more inclined to deviant behavior after authority figures lay the smack down on its life-threatening consequences. I’m not dishing out any harsh criticism here; I always enjoy timely moments of irony. Frank harks back to his half-and-half mixture of rapping and singing, a style that singled him out as the artist with the most potential out of Odd Future’s extensive lineup. I’ve never been a fan of sing-songy hip-hop unless it’s laden with Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s profane outbursts, but Ocean nails the combination on “Solo”.
“Summer’s not as long as it used to be,” is probably the only line that resonates with me in “Skyline To”. Otherwise, it does nothing to distinguish itself from the previous tracks besides Tyler, the Creator’s tranquil production. Kendrick Lamar is listed as having writing credits and maybe a poot of influence in the laidback sound. Think of it like this: I insert a couple of game tokens into the claw machine, position the claw as best I can over what I want and tap the button. I tremble in fear as it descends on what’s underneath it. It barely manages a nibble despite my cautious positioning, turning up dry after every single attempt. I conclude time and time again what a rip-off the claw machine is, and that’s how I felt combing through this song in search of Kendrick’s artistry. It seems he’s nowhere to be found, yet maybe his star power would’ve distracted the audience from relating to Ocean’s personal woes.
The guitar-driven “Self Control” could’ve very well been the most beautiful song on the album about longing for love. Unfortunately, the microphone decided to drop acid and steal helium from a birthday party’s balloons on recording day. I can’t fathom the reasoning behind high-pitched vocals unless you hired Verne Troyer to make an R&B album. Despite my nitpicking, Ocean’s angelic vocal performance is unparalleled in comparison to Blonde’s other offerings.
“Good Guy’s” short narrative caters to the heartbroken after a disastrous blind date. It reminds me of a Tinder date I went on where this girl sunk her crocodilian jaws into my neck during Guardians of the Galaxy. This bloodthirsty species was only motivated by sexual cravings just like the majority of Tinder’s population; I wanted something much more. I feel for you, Frank.
The final minute and a half of “Nights” is worth praising as it wildly contrasts the beginning’s tone. I could loop it over and over again without paying mind to what comes before. I always appreciate an artist who can masterfully switch gears once the instrumental changes personalities. It’s simply beautiful, and it’s rare when I use that term to describe a song that layers its singing with rapping.
André 3000 of OutKast fame is ruthless on “Solo (Reprise)”. I mean, holy Hell. I sincerely hoped the beef between Drake and Eminem wasn’t a myth because I was full-on ready for Eminem to demolish Drake’s career, a feat he’s capable of by using fewer words than someone afflicted with lockjaw. I’m sad that arguably the greatest rapper of all time won’t be dishing any heat to Drake’s pillow-soft ways. However, André 3000’s subliminal diss towards the latter’s penchant for using ghostwriters was good enough for me. What say you, Jimmy?
An interlude normally warrants a skip on my end, but “Pretty Sweet” is an appropriate follow-up to André 3000’s aggressive performance. It gives the album a chance to check its pulse without completely slowing to a flat line, ensuring that its flow is never lost. Whereas an interlude can sometimes serve a purpose, a skit seems to exist just to make sure an album’s running time doesn’t qualify it as an EP. “Facebook Story” definitely caters to the population who lets social media dictate their love lives. French producer Sebastian reminisces about the time he got sacked by a girl because he neglected to hit the “Accept” button. Sure, his story of intimacy and heartbreak is relevant to Blonde’s dominant themes, but it feels like an outsider has just interrupted my one-on-one conversation with Frank. Do you have a friend who decides to chime in with their own experiences and opinions before the other person even finishes? Wait your turn, dude.
Frank Ocean’s elegant, wide-ranging vocal abilities should never be corrupted by the industry’s obsession with auto-tune. This rendition of The Carpenters’ “Close to You” either had good intentions or zero confidence in his natural talent. Auto-tune should only be reserved for resurrecting careers and communicating your order to T-Pain when he’s running the drive-thru at McDonald’s, not for a true artist who’s just entering his prime.
There are people who throw on a new record, bump the first few tracks and provide a verdict without giving the second half the time of day. I acknowledge the relentless negativity throughout my review of this critically acclaimed album, but I implore negative deadbeats like myself to dig deep until you stumble upon the glorious 14th track. The minute-long triplets preceding “White Ferrari” are nothing but distant relatives you ignore at an awkward family reunion. “White Ferrari” is the cool, laidback and fashionably late relative that everyone adores, and it’s been a long time since you’ve seen them. My favorite songs don’t just paint pictures; they instill fictional memories that are just as beautiful as the real ones. I will most likely never know what it’s like to curve through the stunning landscape in a Ferrari, but it will fuse with my real memories of cruising into the sunset in a beat-up Pontiac G6 plagued by beer farts.
“I can’t relate to my peers.” That’s all you really need from “Seigfried” because how many times have you uttered that same sentence? It haunts Ocean to this very day ever since he revealed that his first love was another man. The hip-hop world seemed unprepared for one of its own to emerge as an honest man who’s comfortable with his identity. Many hip-hop heads voiced their support for Ocean’s public letter, yet having a genuine connection with others continues to evade him. This is an ominous track that looms over the listener with deceptively calm production. Romantic tragedy strikes in this number’s opening. It’s followed by Ocean questioning an alternate reality created by different life choices, only to return to his romantic failure once again. It’s a painful record that demonstrates our propensity to cover up the past with a blissful fantasy. Our brains fail to convince us that we’re in this false reality, eventually concluding that we can’t escape the aforementioned past. Finding your better half is a challenging endeavor when you consider yourself to be an outcast.
Gospel singer Kim Burrell assists Ocean in his quest to say what he wished he said many years ago. No matter how terrible your past relationships were, you learned something from them. I won’t overstep my boundaries by likening your worst relationship to Ocean’s experience on “Godspeed”, but you did move on somewhere down the line and put that learning experience to good use. Here, he serves up an emotional farewell to someone who will always be a part of his life. It puts a cap on this gut-wrenching journey that has collected enough tears to kill the Wicked Witch of the West ten times over.
North of 9 minutes, “Futura Free” is Blonde’s longest track, which makes sense because it summarizes his complex existence and extraordinary accomplishments. A silent interlude gives you a moment to compose yourself after fumbling through the trials and tribulations of a damaged soul. It gives way to a brief interview with Ocean’s little brother, Ryan Breaux, that I can’t decipher, but keeping with the theme of personal achievement I gather it’s examining one’s own ambitions. “How far is a light year?” pretty much eliminates the common notion that life is too short. Nosy interviewers often ask where I think I’ll be in 5 years’ time; I can’t even predict where I’ll be in 5 minutes. The voices in this recording don’t seem too confident about their futures either, but hearing this forgotten conversation on a popular musician’s album was probably beyond their scope of thinking. All journeys have to start somewhere, right?
This was a difficult album to review. I’ve given you a slew of positives and negatives that don’t quite add up to a definite conclusion. Is Blonde worth a listen? I don’t think it’s fair to examine a work of art only once; Ocean’s follow-up to Channel Orange warrants multiple repeats because it seeks a listening ear that won’t dip in and out of its heartfelt confessions. Blonde is like the frustrating experience you’ve had with a close friend who decided to air their dirty laundry to you: it was frustrating because you felt absolutely useless and unfit to lead them to a full recovery. However, they weren’t asking you to fix anything, they just needed a good friend to listen to what they had to say. It’s this reason alone that I can’t comment on whether the album lived up to the hype. Hype indicates that you’re waiting with great anticipation for something to occur. I didn’t wait 4 years to critically assess Ocean’s artistry, I gave him as much time as he needed until he was ready to seek a listening ear. Despite my harsh criticisms, Ocean is one of the last mainstream artists to be completely honest with his audience, and most importantly himself. That alone was worth the wait.