CLASSIC REVIEW: Frank Ocean, Blonde
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
Social media has turned music fans into some of the most insufferable maniacs over the past decade. I like Mario Judah and I know that he’s a smart troll, but his campaign to get Carti to release his album perfectly exemplifies what I’m talking about. “It’s been two years! If you don’t release Whole Lotta Red, I will!” is the gist of what he said but it’s also what happened several times over from 2018-2020. People wanted the album, so they yelled at Carti to do it (even though two years is not a long time) and when he didn’t, they leaked his music. This frustrated both Carti and his producer Pi’erre Bourne to no end, causing them to dump the material they’d worked on and start anew. This happened so many times that by the time WLR finally dropped, Pi’erre was on 2 of 24 tracks, and then everyone went “OMG WHERE’S PI’ERRE?! THIS ALBUM IS TRASH!” These are the same people that leaked Yandhi and harassed Kanye to the point that he released his worst album, Jesus Is King (D-).
The fact that Frank Ocean went from Channel Orange (A+) in 2012 to Endless/Blonde in 2016 without a single leak is what some would call a miracle. When Frank teased toward these albums shortly before their release, not a single person had any idea what was going on. There was a magazine called Boys Don’t Cry and this weird stream of Ocean slowly building a staircase that baffled the entire internet and his label. He dropped Endless first, which many people rightfully pointed out as being a way for him to get out of his record contract with Universal/Def Jam. The original version of this album, from my understanding, was played in the background during the staircase video. It was hard to critique it at the time, but after a subsequent CD, vinyl and VHS release (I own the vinyl), critics were able to get a more accurate representation of the album’s sound.
Blonde is an A+ just like Channel Orange, but it’s somehow even better. Instead of making improvements, Frank makes a lateral step away from the story driven, poppy R&B and rap that made that debut so special. Instead, he takes a more avant, often drumless and sober approach, highlighting his lyricism as well as his voice, which by all accounts is a gift bestowed upon mankind to heal us. He faked us out in the beginning, with “Nikes”, masking his standout voice with pitch shifted auto-tune. Nevertheless, his melodies and touching tributes to those who have fallen like A$AP Yams, Trayvon Martin and Pimp C shine through the effect. Toward the end of the track, the effect is lifted but Frank side-steps expectations yet again with some adept bars. And by bars I mean BARS. “We'll let you guys prophesy/We gon' see the future first/Living so the last night feels like a past life/Speaking of the, don't know what got into people/Devil be possessin homies/Demons try to body jump/Why you think I'm in this bitch wearing a fucking Yarmulke?” Not only that, but when he brings back the singing at the tail-end, he makes direct references to his homosexuality, something he only previously touched on in the final moments of Channel Orange (“You gotta roommate, he’ll know what we do/It’s only awkward, if you’re f*cking him too”).
The fictional vignettes of his debut are replaced with confessionals, diary entries of a rich, successful and sometimes very sad Frank Ocean. The line “I broke your heart last week/You'll probably feel better by the weekend/Still remember, had you going crazy” off “Ivy” still brings me to tears to this day, as does his emotive and freakish singing at the end. The entire track features this washed out, gorgeous guitar work that is alien to Frank’s work, and this is followed by “Pink + White” who’s instrumental is similarly soft and emotive. It reminds of “Sweet Life” from Orange but more instrumentally rich and more lyrically detailed, with lines using swimming pools as a metaphor for rebirth. All of this is backed subtly by vocals from none other than Beyoncé.
Like the coffee table book that accompanied the project, Blonde is an amalgamation of Frank’s tastes, physical experiences and the lessons he’s learned along the way. Nowhere are these lessons more perfectly isolated than on the album’s vocal breaks “Be Yourself” and “Facebook Story”. The former is from Rosie Watson, the mother of one of Frank’s friends, who tells him about the dangers of drug use, just before the next song plays and the first line is “...gone off tabs of that acid form me a circle, watch my jacket”. “Facebook Story” uses the same instrumental from “Be Yourself”, but it features his producer SebAstian telling a tale of how he was broken up with over an argument about not adding his girlfriend on social media (I told you social media is a plague.) Following this is a really odd, almost industrial interpolation of one of my favorite songs of all time by The Carpenters “Close to You”. Even “Solo (Reprise)”, essentially just an Andre 3000 track, feels like a father figure quickly giving Frank, and by extension us, a lesson.
When I said “often drumless” earlier in the review, I really mean that. Joe Budden and Charlamagne famously and stupidly criticized the album for that, but I think it’s a strength. Take away a man’s sense of smell and his hearing gets better, as the myth goes. With “rhythm” taken away via the drums, Frank is left with no choice but to dazzle us with mood and his heavenly vocal work. Not only is he passionately nailing high notes on “Solo”, but he finds time to say something too. “It's hell on Earth and the city's on fire/Inhale, in hell there's heaven/There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky/Inhale, in hell there's heaven” is such an effortless and soulful turn of phrase, it’s a testament to his talent. Another great turn of phrase is on “Self Control”, where he sings “I came to visit, ‘cause you see me like a UFO/That’s like never, ‘cause you made me lose my self control”. The tracks sobering acoustic instrumental, Yung Lean’s vocal accompaniment and the expert pacing all crescendo at the end of the track, one of the most raw parts of the record, where Frank sings “I, I, I, know you gotta leave leave leave…” until the track fades, another part that still nearly brings me to tears on each listen. “Skyline To” is a great mood piece, due mostly in part to Tyler the Creator’s mature and subtle production, that little bubbling synth line that pops in at around 1:41 is just *chef’s kiss*
“Nights” is essentially like “Pyramids” 2.0, it’s not better but it’s better, if that makes any sense. “Nights” is certainly a basic b*tch choice for top song on the album, and top Frank song in general, but it’s absolutely undeniable in the way that it rises and falls. It begins with slow, chugging psyched-out guitars and trap drums and features half singing, half rapping from Frank that is singularly him. Some of my favorite lines off this portion are “This feels like a quaalude, no sleep in my body” and “Rolling marijuana that’s a cheap vacation”. The beat slightly shifts as Frank gets more personal and angry in his lyrical content, and then, a musical moment that will live on in history occurs. At 3:30, the track flips on its head, going from day to night. The beat suddenly gets nocturnal, with a deep bassline and slow pianos woozily flowing as Frank passionately raps “Every night f*cks every day up, every day patches the night up”. GODDAMN THAT'S SO TRUE 😱😱😱. All day we work to get to the night, where we make bad decisions that we face in the day. It’s a cycle that goes and goes and goes and goes and goes and we have absolutely no control of it until we’re dead, and we reach “nirvana” as Frank says.
My second favorite song on this album “White Ferrari” also includes a musical moment, known as the “White Ferrari outro”, that we dare not skip. In classic Frank fashion, he is spinning a passionate love ballad with a cool retro car wedged in there (I.e. "Mitsubishi Sony"). I love the different directions Frank takes his voice on this track. At first it’s stuttering and rapping, then as the track progresses his vocals become choral with a light acoustic guitar for support. By the famed “outro”, he sounds almost like a completely different man, singing in a hushed, expressive falsetto. The mood of the track never lets up, not even for a moment, until it ends with a faded drum break.
As the years have gone by, some of the tracks that were my least favorite have grown on me significantly, taking this album from a B+ on first listen to the perfect score it’s at now. I had a VERY SPECIFIC experience while reading his coffee table book, which some of my good friends understand. Seeing pictures of cold, European forests with ATVs and BMWs help me understand his state of mind while writing such cold, atmospheric tracks like “Seigfried”. Frank is so worldly and as he travels and watches films, he picks up ideas and sonics that make it on here, one way or another. Seeing pictures of Japanese races he participated in makes the Vangelis-type beat on “Godspeed” make a lot more sense as well, and eventually I was won over anyway by Frank’s raw vocals and the organ work. “Pretty Sweet” was my least favorite before seeing him in 2017 on Randall’s Island totally turned me into a Stan of this song's wild, communal drive. That concert in particular, which I went to with fellow Anti member @antiarttroy feels almost like a dream in this era we live in. My phone was totally dead and I didn’t get to film a moment of it, but singing these songs in the company of 50,000 other people with total focus made me feel like I was in some other era. I feel lucky to have been there and seen every single piece of it with the focus of a hawk. I almost got kicked out for trying to cut his merch line but that’s a story for another day. Best concert I’ve ever been to, and I’m still upset I missed Girl Talk perform! F*ck!
“Futura Free” at first felt like an awkward, indulgent closer to an overindulgent album, but now I see it as a perfect cap to and summation of all the emotions on the project. He fucks three times a day, talks about how he used to work fast food, brags about making 800k for a show, confirms that he’s a man not a God, praises his fans, tells his haters to give him head, speculates about 2Pac’s death, talks about how he might die like Selena, remembers how Tyler slept on his couch, threatens to steal your girl even though he’s gay, remembers how he had a three-way on his birthday and then tells you to skip the track, in that order. It shows that Frank is multi-faceted; he’s wistful, he’s smart, he’s ambitious, he’s gay (unless he wants your girl), he gets angry and he can flex on any of your favorite rappers, and its all interwoven with important cultural touchstones. And then it just...stops…..and then it’s back. The same cute little instrumental that soundtracked the skits comes back with some odd little interviews from what sounds like musicians, skaters and Frank’s little brother is on here too (R.I.P.). This song turns this from an album to a movie, this being one of those deleted scenes like those at the end of the Rush Hour 2.
To be honest, I didn’t think I’d have THIS much to say about Blonde, I surprised myself. That being said, Blonde is a pleasure from start to finish. Like Freetown Sound (A+) by Blood Orange, it’s a deeply personal album that gets down to the nitty gritty of who the artist is. It gets so specific and emotional in its detail that me as the listener feels closer to Frank, I feel like he’s been my friend since 2011 when he released his debut tape, but now we reconnected and he told me everything about his life, from childhood to future plans. This album is one of those rare ones that just goes beyond music, it’s a whole lifestyle. The way that Frank so methodically lists and credits his film and musical influences is basically the reason I got into reviewing and cataloging the things I love. By documenting these personal details about myself through the lens of entertainment, I hope to expose to you all just a small portion of who I am as a person, just as Frank did on Blonde. Anti would not exist without this album, and without the other A+ albums WE will continue to routinely gush over. And until Frank decides to give us another masterpiece, don’t bother him! Let him ride his bike or hang out with Arca and do what he needs to do to continue inspiring himself! Live your own life!
In the immortal words of Rosie:
“Be yourself and know that that's good enough.
Don't try to be someone else.
Don't try to be like someone else, don't try to act like someone else, be yourself.
Be secure with yourself.
Rely and trust upon your own decisions.
On your own beliefs.”