After its neverending goal post shifting release date since Frank Ocean first announced the retitled Boys Don’t Cry in April 2015, the hype and expectation had reached fever pitch more than once. Deadlines passed. No music came. The expectation was for songs that would resonant to the same level as ‘Thinking About You’, ‘Swim Good’ or ‘Lost’- grade A R&B music from a bright new talent. When it finally arrived, you would be forgiven at first, for wondering what all the fuss was about, if Blonde (or Blond as it’s titled on the cover) was your first listen to a Frank Ocean release.
It was proceeded by Endless, a 45 minute visual album, that with was visually boring wallpaper (Frank working on a spiral staircase) but musically, a scattershot of fragmented music with a demo feel, albeit demos with James Blake, strings from Jonny Greenwood, an Isley Brothers cover and some German techno bookending it.
It’s been suggested since, that the visual album was Ocean fulfilling his obligation to his label Def Jam for another release (Blonde appears to have been self-released). It remains to be seen if that’s true, but regardless, Endless had the feel of a clearing of decks, a reset, a warmup, an acknowledgement of the expectation.
Two days later, Blonde debuted and surprisingly barely feels unburdened with expectation. In fact, it feels like a more polished version of Endless, yet equally withdrawn, more fragmented and even more insular. The atmosphere is muted, the instrumentation minimal, beats and percussion are largely ignored. Even the calibre of the marquee guests on this thing are put into the deep background – to the point where you may not even realise Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are on it until you’ve read the credits. Only Andre 3000 (who appeared on Channel Orange too) gets to leave his mark, thrillingly so.
Blonde has the air of an album penned in solitude an ultra-white pristine mansion at dusk (one in which he occasionally takes in the homeless as he admits). Ocean parties, drives fast cars (and details them), does acid, shrooms, smokes weed, (all the while including a track where his mother warns him against substances). He enjoys it but thinks of his self-development as detailed on ‘Siegfried’ (“less morose and more present / Dwell on my gifts for a second”). ‘Ivy’ and ‘Pink + White’ suggest there’s gratitude for a failed relationship and the hurt it caused is deemed to be worth it ultimately. There’s an overall sense of the artist soaking up his experiences as positive and striving forward to be more aware, content, loved, loving, present.
Ocean’s sweet voice is one that is rare; consuming, soulful, nimble, honey-toned and it responsible for all of the highlights here. ‘Pink + White’ is beautiful sunshine soul, ‘Solo’ is buoyed by one of the year’s most memorable choruses over barely more than an organ. others, ‘Self Control’, feel like acoustic demos with some bare production until harmonised Frank drops in the memorable outro. Other tracks meander aimlessly yet Ocean continues to magnetise the listener like ‘Skyline To’ (where Lamar exists but is barely heard) while interpolations of songs from Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Elliott Smith appear adding familiarity. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sings outro on ‘White Ferrari too’.
Blonde is all about Frank and his interactions with friends, family, strangers, crushes. A guy living the high life, a clichéd love of fast cars with a new openness about his sexuality (shouting out to the gay bar he went to on a blind date). Blonde feels like the result of someone in transition, adjusting to a new life while looking back on the old one that made him. A nostalgic boy, a sensitive man. After multiple listens, an avant-leaning minimal R&B album of significance emerges. Better still, Ocean gives insight to himself, his thoughts and his place in the world. The year’s most hyped record reveals itself in subtle ways.