He did it, he actually did it.
(I know it’s not a ‘hip hop’ album but how could I not talk about this thing?)
Four years. Four long, grueling years it took for Frank Ocean to release new music to our ears. After so many rumours and disappointments, so much hype and doubt; the guy finally decided that the world should get to hear his work again. Most other artists would’ve been tossed aside from the public eye had they taken a hiatus that long, forgotten and left to the barren wilderness of musical obscurity. But not Frank. People somehow kept the faith for all this time, hanging onto the belief that the singer/songwriter would keep his promise and deliver a project worth as much acclaim as his last LP; ‘Channel ORANGE‘. Well, the hunger for more Frank was sated on August 20th, and the wait was truly worth it.
‘Blond‘ (or ‘Blonde‘ as Apple data shows it) however wasn’t just a solitary album release by the New Orleans native. Only one day before its reveal Frank dropped a 45 minute-long video exclusively on Apple Music entitled ‘Endless‘, a visual art project set to brand new, never-before-heard music. Though the video’s content itself is confusing and honestly quite boring, with multiple Franks building a spiral staircase in a desolate workshop, the score was a heart-warming return to what fans had missed for so long. It wasn’t much to go on for someone like me trying to nitpick and analyse every little detail, as the sound quality was echoed to match the workshop’s atmosphere, but then little did I know that just 24 hours later the ‘real’ thing would be released. Featuring a whole different tracklist to the previously mentioned music video/art project piece, ‘Blond‘ accommodates 17 tracks and is an entirely independent release, shedding the ties of both Def Jam and Odd Future that Frank had been affiliated with so frequently in the past. That’s a pretty good way to describe the album too, despite it being one part of a joint project, it stands apart from not only what the singer has done in the past, but to what the industry in general can offer today.
Just hours before the full LP dropped, a track entitled ‘Nikes‘ appeared on Apple Music in the form of (yet another) music video. Glittery ass shots and Balmain jackets aside, it turned out to be the opening track from the album, meaning it was the first fully CDQ piece we’d got from Frank since 2012. It’s an interesting opener in both execution and aesthetic, with the first half of the track having pitch-shifted vocals instead of his usual cadence. The slow, crawling drum kicks and watery synths have this almost psychedelic feel to them, perhaps to indicate the more generally left-field nature of the project. When regular-voice Frank finally makes his appearance the instrumental switches to a guitar and string section combination, suddenly veering the song into a more impassioned tone. Some may interpret this as a duality of personalities (a theme that seems to run rampant throughout the LP), and to be honest its a bit of a weaker opener than I’d hoped for such an anticipated album. It’s not a bad track by any stretch, but it will certainly be one of the more polarizing pieces that may deter listeners.
Thankfully the quality is sky-rocketed and maintained for (most) of the rest of the run time, with tracks like ‘Pink + White‘ towards the beginning of the record exemplifying Frank’s insane talent for making good vibrations. The track has this wonderful daydream vibe to it, a vibrant-yet-distant piano and bass guitar give it this ethereal atmosphere, while Frank himself contrasts this with a pretty morose attitude to a relationship that seems to have reached its pinnacle: “You showed me love / Glory from above / Regard my dear / It’s all downhill from here“. With background vocals from Beyoncé adding to the tracks heavenly feel, it’s a standout that is open to interpretation, like something that would fit into a ‘summer’s over’ playlist.
As the tracklist goes on you begin to understand that this is not ‘Channel ORANGE‘ 2.0, most of what can be found here is a step away from the more commercialized and more accessible sounds from his previous outings. The track ‘Seigfried‘ is a dark, gloomy cut entailing a recent break up the singer has had and how it’s effected his perspective on life as a celebrity “Maybe I’m a fool / To settle for a place with some nice views / Maybe I should move / Settle down, two kids and a swimming pool“. The lone, subdued guitar allows Frank to really explore the emotional conveyance he can render in his voice, especially about one of his favourite topics; being lonely. In fact, the album is at its best when it allows its creator to channel feeling and thought without having to battle an instrumental. Tracks like ‘White Ferrari‘ and ‘God Speed‘ have incredibly simplistic yet powerful production, making full use of organs, low-end synths and the odd guitar clip. The latter is one of Frank’s most impressive vocal performances, the pure passion in his delivery is stunning, you’re not just listening to him letting someone go – you’re feeling it.
With this stripped-back, more simplistic tone to the production, Frank’s writing is given more precedence than before and in result is something to marvel at even further. The hook of ‘Solo‘ is brilliant in its play on words – “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire / Inhale, inhale there’s heaven / There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky / Inhale, in hell there’s heaven” – the play on “inhale” to sound like “in hell” is something that would impress even the most experienced of poets. It’s made in more charming by its juxtaposition to the short interlude before the track with the mother of one of Frank’s childhood friends warning him of the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
Even when the instrumentals do get a little more grandeur in their execution, Frank matches it with the same confident delivery and dexterity that makes him so likeable. On the track ‘Nights‘ he even juxtaposes himself by challenging his more macho persona – “Shut the fuck up I don’t want your conversation / Rolling marijuana that’s a cheap vacation” with thoughts of loneliness and desperation -“Want to see nirvana, but don’t want to die yeah / Wanna feel that nana though, could you come by“. The track also has a awesome beat switch that comes out of nowhere with this transition to an isolated piano loop with some light rolling hi-hats and just enough bass to keep you invested.
With the LP being so left field and different from anything he’s put out before, it does admittedly take a couple of risks that don’t pay off. The shorter, interlude-like tracks such as ‘Pretty Sweet‘ and ‘Close To You‘ don’t hold the same delicate craftsmanship that the ‘feature-length’ cuts do. The former has this frenetic, layered opening with the singer shouting to be heard over the noise, eventually delving into a slightly more enjoyable uptempo second half. Don’t get it twisted, it’s still interesting to listen to, but it seems like a step back from all the shining accolades that the rest of the record has to offer.
And I can’t talk about a Frank Ocean project without mentioning the kind of moments that almost (or maybe they do) bring you to tears. The song ‘Self Control‘ has a wonderfully smooth guitar melody that manages to holds its own as a backing track, yet Frank compliments it so well to the point that just the two components combine to make one heart-wrenching experience. As he croons over the sweet instrumental about a lost love and his loss of confidence due to the obvious failure of gaining the same feelings from this mysterious individual, you sink into the sadness like the helpless listener you are. The addition of Yung Lean (while unexpected) is actually pretty effective, his more deeper vocals enhancing the building instrumental. And the outro. The outro to this track is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time – perhaps ever. It was here I appreciated what Frank is best at; his unyielding ability to make the listener feel some sort of way, almost effortlessly. I was helpless to these sonic creations but I was enjoying every moment of it.
Oh and that André 3000 interlude – God sent.
Frank Ocean’s appeal is so confusing to describe to someone whose never listened to him before. Sure, he makes enjoyable, low-key pop/neo-soul music – but why does the world love him so much? What’s he got that’s so special? On ‘Blond‘ he proves what makes him stand out from an area that has seemed so stagnated for so long, displaying an almost effortless nature to craft such lucid yet such powerful songs. His voice, his writing and his chosen production all come together to create something that on the surface seems so simple, yet when dug into deeper stands so singular from anything you could even fathom comparing it to. It’s not a perfect album, not the record that will save us from musical trepidation like the second coming of Christ; but it is Frank. And Frank Ocean made something very special, even if it is a little (maybe massively) behind schedule.
Highlights: Self Control, Pink + White, Godspeed, Solo, Seigfried, Nights, White Ferrari