The Whig in Review: Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ masterfully handles an aura of divergence
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.
Ron Francis hands out awards at the Chesapeake City Car Show in 2014.