The album hip-hop heads and R&B enthusiasts alike have been waiting for is finally here. Approximately four long years in the making, Frank Ocean has finally released the follow-up to his 2012 masterpiece, Channel Orange. When it comes to album releases in 2016, artists go the more unconventional route, aiming for the element of surprise, and Frank’s sophomore studio album, Blond, is as avant-garde as it gets.
Originally set for release under the title Boys Don’t Cry, the mystery and anticipation surrounding the singer’s junior offering increased with every passing year until the idea of a Frank Ocean album became more of a running joke than an actual reality. However, serious rumors of an actual release picked up speed earlier this month, when he dropped a visual album called Endless, the Boys Don’t Cry magazine and finally the official project we now know as Blond.
Luckily for Frank and his army of die-hard fans, the time he took to craft the album sufficiently equates to its’ quality. Perhaps he didn’t spend the entire four years working on these exact 17 songs, seeing as the first line on the album intro “Nikes” is “I got two versions, I got two versions,” but nonetheless it’s clear Blond took some serious time and effort both lyrically and sonically. Even the title — Blond or Blonde — was decided upon in the final hour.
From the sonic standpoint, Blond is much more dreamy and atmospheric than his two previous releases, Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange. Uptempo drums are traded in for lots of slow, melodic keys and strings, which won’t get listeners on their feet but rather in their feelings. The vibe is moody, distorted and ambiguous yet incredibly passionate, allowing Frank to write from an interesting perspective.
His songwriting has always blurred the genre lines and this album highlights that wildly innate ability. Whether it’s tapping into his deeply artistic neo-soul side, rhyming off a long-winded ballad or spitting a quick 16, Frank has no musical borders. Obviously the majority of his music and especially this album are concretely R&B but there are some not so subtle mixes of rock on songs like “Pretty Sweet,” rap on tracks like “Solo” and cold hard poetry on “Skyline To.” The album flows in such a dizzying way that it’s hard to categorize each individual song.
Having an album with such varying influences when it comes to sound both helps and hinders Blond. The overarching theme of love and loss matched with parallel sounds are what makes it such a great listen straight through but no track stands alone. There is no pinnacle cut like “Pyramids” or “Novacane” here; instead Frank delivers an emotional stream of consciousness for a full 60 minutes. This allows his lyrics to become the ultimate focal point despite the few star-studded features. Andre 3000, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Yung Lean, Austin Feinstein, James Blake and Kim Burrell are all credited as guests but barely make a noticeable impact on their respectively featured songs. Except of course for Three Stacks, who raps at God-like level for a minute and 20 seconds on the reprise version of “Solo.”
Aside from Frank Ocean’s outstanding vocal performance, there are also instances of eccentric creative genius. He conveys lines about an uber-metaphysical sentiment on “Solo,” on which he sings “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” and then turns around and spits out, “I’m skipping showers and switching socks,” which seems incredibly mundane by contrast. This turn-on-a-dime kind of writing might be confusing for the less than active listener but when pulled apart, the song’s “so low/solo” double entendre theme reveals itself to be genius; all lines included.
What Frank seems to tackle much of on Blond is irresistible temptations. “Pink + White” hones in on the slippery slope one faces when giving into love and cocaine. “It’s the same way you showed me/Nod my head, don’t close my eyes” is a line so real that it sounds like it sat in the back of the singer’s mind until it came to vocalization during a fervent couple’s counslling session. “Self-Control” deals not so much with substance temptations but instead the inducement of lust. Lines like “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight” is such an unequivocal look into Frank’s lustful mind that it might catch listeners off guard — in a good way.
Blond walks a fine line between the Frank Ocean fans have come to know and love and a darker, more intriguing side. There are some vividly told stories about his past relationships, drug-induced love affairs and even some melodic messaging on the modern political landscape, proving nothing is off limits to share with his audience. After all, without risk there’s no reward, as he so eloquently displays on “Pretty Sweet”: “To the edge I’ll race/To the end I’ll make it/All the risk, I’ll take it.”
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Author: Scott Glaysher
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