By Keegan Priest
Artist: Frank Ocean
Released: August 20, 2016
Genre: Neo-Soul, Art-Pop, Alternative R&B
The four-year hiatus that followed the release of 2012’s most critically acclaimed project was a silent one from Frank Ocean. Channel Orange was an important album for pop music and its time and marked Frank as one of the most influential music artists of this generation.
Those four years served him well though; Frank released in late August 2016, what was previously hinted to be named Boys Don’t Cry, but to be later decided as Blonde (or seen on the cover of the album as Blond). But I don’t think this was the album people were really expecting, or maybe what they didn’t think they wanted. This project is obviously a drastic variation from the artist people had loved and appreciated from the Frank before. The production and instrumentation tend to really transform through these projects, along with Frank’s performance and his subject matter. This is a transformation I understand not everyone appreciates as much as I do.
Coming from Channel Orange, and during the four-year gap in Frank Ocean’s musical career, society changed in not only the African American culture but in world culture. With the album’s release in the months preceding the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Frank discusses themes of the reflection of the tension in the black community and the expectations placed on him. In a piece by Pitchfork about Blonde, they wrote, “Faced with a hellish loop of police brutality, other musical pioneers like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé came forth with brilliant righteousness as well. But not Frank. Though he posted several elegant messages online, reacting to horrors in Ferguson and Orlando, his relative silence only grew louder as tensions outside continued to rise. The stoic empathy he beamed throughout Channel Orange was missed.” Frank feels the difficulty of being popular as an African American, stressing that from the outside world you become a representative for a larger community than he’s able to be responsible for. This responsibility changed Frank as an artist for the better. Even with a first listen, it is apparent Blonde is a significantly more mature album than its predecessor.
The simplicity of Blonde is one of its most attractive factors. Whether it’s the single organ that plays throughout the majority of the track “Solo” or the bitter-sweet guitar on “Ivy”, Frank explores musical beauty through its minimalism. The simplistic instrumentation plays a perfect accompaniment to Frank’s poetic message. As much of a cryptic and mysterious artist that Frank is, his music is alluringly deliberate. He is both straightforward yet romantically metaphorical. The album may seem so subtle, yet, the feature and contribution list would show a different story. From David Bowie; to the Beatles; to Tyler, the Creator; to Kendrick Lamar, some of the greatest artists of the last century contributed. Yet, without that knowledge, you could listen to the album completely without knowing these artists worked on it.
Cohesion of a project is an attribute of a project I look for. Whether the album tells a story or carries a similar message throughout the project, it doesn’t feel complete without something tying each track together. Blonde doesn’t fall short of cohesion in the slightest bit, but some of the skits are a little odd and are really susceptible to misinterpretation. The odd “Facebook Story”, where a man talks about how his girlfriend broke up with him because he wouldn’t friend her on Facebook has a quality message, but I don’t really understand the tie to the project. Along with the cryptic interview at the end of “Futura Free”, which is half static so I usually don’t listen to it in its entirety. Even with these minor shortcomings, Blonde still had a wonderful flow of listen and the skit with his mother, “Be Yourself”, always transitions perfectly into “Solo”.
Duality is a major theme throughout Ocean’s discography and is extremely noticeable throughout Blonde. Even by looking at the cover of the album, where the title is written Blond, whereas the official published title for the album written as Blonde, is a reference to Frank’s bisexuality. The masculine side of the album, Blond, and the feminine Blonde. This duality plays a major role throughout the project too. The track “Nights” is set in the middle of the track listing, functioning as a separator of the album. After the tempo variation in the song, the album begins to have a completely different tone than the half before it. Frank shows beauty and luxury throughout the first half, while in the second half, Frank appears more vulnerable and insecure. Frank does a fantastic job in terms of subject matter. Whether he’s discussing nostalgia or self-indulgence, Frank is extremely poetic, and with his astonishing falsettos, he delivers these messages beautifully.
In a culture where an identity becomes inseparable from a work of art, Frank manages to both disconnect and unite himself with his music. Frank has a very limited social media presence and when he does use it, he uses it as a tool to create the mysterious image he has. But the lack of knowledge we have about him makes the music more personal. Instead of regurgitating information we could have found on the internet, he uses his lack of identity to make his memoirs more poetic and meaningful. I think it’s reasons like these that make Frank Ocean one of the most important and influential artists of the twenty-first century, and Blonde is another astonishing piece to prove it.