Blonde – Frank Ocean
The wait for Frank Ocean fans is finally over. In the past week, Ocean has released not one, but two albums – uploading Endless, a 45-minute video album, on Thursday night, as a precursor to Blonde, a 17-track fully fledged, classic Frank album released by Apple Music on Saturday night and sold in LP format exclusively in four pop-up shops in London, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles on Sunday.
Back in the days of Year 11 I played Ocean’s genre-defying 2012 debut, channel ORANGE, on repeat until I knew that interloping hip-hop/soul/groove storytelling album inside out. This left me pretty nervous for his second coming as a solo artist. How could you beat the gentle humour of that first album, with its references to both ancient and modern-day cultural icons, from Cleopatra to Forrest Gump, its soaring vocals on “Sweet Life” and “Thinking Bout You”, and its interruptions and hidden tracks with such peculiar and tasty lyrics as ‘she peels an orange/for us in the morning/she woke me up to give me half’? How could Ocean top those fantastic stories of mysterious and sordid characters – prostitutes, taxi drivers, monks – told against a backdrop of unrequited love, drugs and class wars in Sierra Leone and on the Californian West Coast?
After such anticipation, Endless felt like an anti-climax. Fans had waited first with baited breath and then impatience as Ocean repeatedly sailed past his deadlines (his album was initially due in July 2015????), and last week’s video album featuring Ocean building a spiral staircase in monochrome, with lo-fi, drawn out tracks interrupted by background noise, was not particularly thrilling.
But Ocean has proven the wait was worth it with Blonde, a rich, full album with clear overlaps with Orange but is also more mature in its sound.
Opening track ‘Nikes’ is grooving and experimental, made more psychedelic by Ocean’s use of synthesisers to distort the pitch of his voice. The trippy effect is interrupted by Ocean’s hollow lyrics, as he sings, “we’re not in love but I make love to you”. One of the most danceable tracks on the album is the second song, ‘Ivy’ – but while it is more upbeat in tone, it also continues the lovelorn theme, with “I broke your heart last week/you’ll probably feel better by the weekend”.
Blonde doesn’t lack the charm of Ocean’s debut. Tracks are broken up by interludes such as which are both humorous and critical in the same way as ‘Fertiliser’ and ‘Not Just Money’ were on Orange. ‘Be Yourself’ is an anti-drugs tirade which builds and builds until its humorous voicemail sign-off, “this is mum call me bye”, and ‘Facebook Story’ addresses paranoia in modern day relationships, a similar theme as on Orange.
André 3000 of OutKast makes a return appearance on ‘Solo (Reprise)’, where he raps ad lib, and Bon Iver sings on the standout track ‘White Ferrari’, although other artists’ appearances are very subtle. Despite clear influences and involvement from Drake, Beyoncé, James Blake and even Radiohead, Blonde is certainly Ocean’s creative genius at work, evident by longer baggy tracks such as ‘Nights’ and ‘Solo’, where the illogical structure gives an insight into what could only be Ocean’s mind.
For some this album may be a difficult listen. Not a mainstream pop or R&B album, it twists and trips through different ideas, dealing with relationships, sex and drugs. It doesn’t have the bizarre, fantastical elements of Orange but rather is moody, introspective and reality-based –”that’s the way everyday goes, we don’t have no control” sings Ocean on ‘Pink + White’. This is a slightly older Ocean back at his charming and quirky best, defying the mainstream and producing classic records that given a bit of time, will surely prove to be as timeless and significant as Orange was in 2012. So go and listen to it!