The Whig in Re­view: Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ mas­ter­fully han­dles an aura of di­ver­gence

Cecil Whig - - ACCENT - By JOE ANTOSHAK

jan­toshak@ches­pub.com

The first time you lis­ten to Frank Ocean’s new al­bum, you might mis­take it as over­reach­ing. That’s OK — nor­mal, even.

“Blonde,” the R&B singer’s first full-length stu­dio re­lease since the mon­u­men­tal “Chan­nel Orange” four years ago, does feel un­fa­mil­iar, and elas­tic, and dif­fi­cult. You may ini­tially think that Ocean bit off more than he could chew here, that the way he bounces from theme to theme, from genre to genre, in­di­cates a weak­ness in artis­tic di­rec­tion. But lis­ten again, then lis­ten a third time, then maybe a fourth (you may not be able to stop), and the am­bi­tion will be­gin to jus­tify it­self.

“Blonde” comes af­ter a long stretch of reclu­sive be­hav­ior from the New Orleans na­tive. Since estab­lish­ing his name with the rap col­lec­tive Odd Fu­ture and then car ving out his own niche with “Chan- nel Orange” in 2012, the now- 28- year- old Ocean has evaded the pub­lic eye, at least com­pared to other artists of his ac­claim and pop­u­lar­ity.

In the last two years, Ocean’s si­lence and his con­sis­tently un­ful­filled prom­ises of a new al­bum gen­er­ated a con­sid­er­able amount of hype for the new re­lease. Some­how, he de­liv­ered.

Af­ter the string of scarcity, this past week­end he dropped an abun­dance of new ma­te­rial: first, the vis­ual al­bum “End­less,” a 45-minute af­fair show­ing Ocean build­ing a stair­case; then a stir­ring mu­sic video for his song “Nikes”; and fi­nally “Blonde.” He also pub­lished and dis­trib­uted a mag­a­zine called Boys Don’t Cry at a few pop-up shops around the coun­try.

With “Blonde,” Ocean demon­strates con­sid­er­able ma­tu­rity, both per­son­ally and ar­tis­ti­cally. There is a real sense that he’s come into his own in the years since pub­licly not­ing his own sex­ual flu­id­ity in 2012. This year, dur­ing which we’ve lost two of pop’s most ac­com­plished in­no­va­tors and chal­lengers of the mas­cu­line het­ero­sex­ual norm in David Bowie and Prince, we may have found an­other in Ocean.

But that doesn’t mean there’s re­lief. “Blonde” is just as much about wan­der­ing while still ut­terly lost in past loves as it is about lib­er­a­tion. It’s about com­pli­cated feel­ings in an un­prece­dented time. On the emo­tion­ally-charged “Ivy,” he sings, “We had time to kill back then / You ain’t a kid no more / We’ll never be those kids again.” Ocean is no longer that kid.

The al­bum is melan­cholic and sweep­ing, with lush in­stru­men­ta­tion ac­com­pa­nied by Ocean’s un­der­stated — not to men­tion highly in­ten­tional — vo­cal melodies. “Pink + White,” which fea­tures Bey­oncé, emerges as sort of su­per­power pop song, with lyrics and a hook that grow more pow­er­ful with ev­ery lis­ten. “Nights” not only has the sure­fire feel of a smok­ers’ an­them, but also does the best of any song on the al­bum to cap­ture Ocean’s di­ver­gent emo­tions, both com­po­si­tion­ally and the­mat­i­cally. “I ain’t try­ing to keep you / Can’t keep up a con­ver­sa­tion / Can’t no­body reach you,” he sings, then backtracks im­me­di­ately, “Why your eyes well up? / Did you call me from a séance? / You are from my past life / Hope you’re do­ing well bruh.” Even the al­bum ti­tle — “Blonde” on iTunes but styled “blond” on the cover it­self — shows a sort of un­re­li­a­bil­ity.

On the whole, “Blonde” is mostly genre- re­sis­tant. Its roots are soundly within R&B and hip hop, but more di­verse el­e­ments, such as an abun­dance of gui­tars, sound through­out. Truly, the al­bum feels some­thing like an im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing or per­haps a col­lage, with Ocean tak­ing bits of what­ever strikes him to cre­ate his own whole. In “White Fer­rari,” he goes so far as to ap­pend a line and brief melody from The Bea­tles’ “Here, There And Ev­ery­where.” In these mo­ments, he demon­strates a vir­tu­osic sense of mu­si­cal lin­eage — one worth tak­ing serious note of.

“I’m not him, but I’ll mean some­thing to you,” Ocean sings toward the end of “Nikes.” And, yes, he prob­a­bly will.

Frank Ocean’s new­est al­bum, “Blonde,” is his first since 2012’s “Chan­nel Orange,” his de­but.

CE­CIL WHIG FILE PHOTO

Ron Fran­cis hands out awards at the Ch­e­sa­peake City Car Show in 2014.

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