Very few people know exactly what Frank Ocean was up to between the time he released his universally acclaimed genre-bending album Channel Orange in 2011 and the release of his most recent record, Blonde, in August of 2016. I’m certainly not going to act like I know what Frank was doing during this time period. If Blonde is any indication, however, I have a hunch about what type of music he’s been listening to.
Blonde is an album that is influenced by indie artists like Beach House, Bon Iver and Elliot Smith more than it’s influenced by R&B and hip-hop acts like Kanye West or D’Angelo. A track like ‘Ivy’ sounds like it could have been released on Beach House’s 2015 album, Depression Cherry. Songs like ‘White Ferrari,’ ‘Self-Control’ and ‘Skyline To’ are heavily influenced by Bon Iver and ‘Seigfried’ has Elliot Smith’s fingertips literally on it. Frank directly quotes the man himself when he sings, “This is not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend.”
The most jarring thing about this album, if you could use the term jarring to describe anything about it, is the lack of percussion featured throughout its hour-long run time. Unlike Frank’s R&B and pop contemporaries, he’s not relying on drum patterns to evoke emotions. Instead, the soft strumming of guitar strings, haunting piano melodies and Frank’s unrivaled knack for matching his smooth voice and thought-provoking lyrics with the notes of the beat are what make this album stand above anything else in its class. The songs “Nikes,” “Pink + White” and “Nights” are the only ones that have a traditional R&B feel. The rest are subtle, atmospheric tunes that rely on nuance and a great set of headphones for you to get the full experience. Frank messes with song structure constantly on this release and constantly keeps the listener on his or her toes, even when the understated production can lull the listener into a sense of comfort.
Lyrically, Blonde is much different than its predecessor Channel Orange, although that’s not at all a bad thing. While tracks like “Pilot Jones,” “Sweet Life,” and “Pyramids” off of CO are straight-forward and clean-cut lyrical narratives, Blonde takes a few more listens to grasp Frank’s message. “Nikes” takes us all over Frank’s psyche, as he touches on gold-digging women, the death of Trayvon Martin and his relationship with various family members. On “Solo,” possibly the catchiest and most easily-accessible song on the whole album, Ocean sings about the dangers and loneliness of life on the road accompanied only by the sound of an organ. “Solo” acts like a companion piece to “Lost” from CO. Both songs are incredibly catchy and they both depict different sides of the fame and touring coin. “Seigfried” may be Ocean’s most personal song, which is saying a lot. With lyrics like, “I’ve been living in an idea / An idea from another man’s mind / Maybe I’m a fool / To settle for a place with some nice views,” Ocean wonders if the life he’s expected to have is the life he really wants. From a lyrical standpoint, Ocean has always been miles ahead of his peers. Blonde only cements this idea, as there are tons of ideas and themes to unpack throughout this record.
The features list, while impressive, is hardly noticeable. Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce and James Blake are among some of the names listed in the album notes as having credited vocals, yet they all blend into Frank’s vision. This is his album, from start to finish. The only real feature is from Andre 3000, who delivers a rapid-fire rap verse on “Solo (Reprise)” over one of Mike Dean’s most unique beats. 3K touches on more topics in a 1 minute and 30 second song than you probably thought possible, and ended it by taking a shot at rappers who don’t write their own verses (looking at you Drake).
With 17 tracks and basically 3 skits, this album is structured similarly to Channel Orange. Lyrically and sonically, however, it’s a much different beast. And it’s better for it. Very few of the songs on Blonde have the instant appeal of “Lost” or “Thinking About You.” These are songs that will grow on you. Frank’s vocal prowess and ability to complement the right beat will find a home in your brain and rattle around there for weeks. Blonde is a more mature album from a more mature man. The only thing bad about this release is it may mean Frank will go into hiding for another 5 years. Please don’t Frank. Mainstream music needs you and it certainly needs more records like Blonde.