NIQUE ALBUM REVIEW: FRANK OCEAN, BLONDE
JULY 2, 2016: Frank Ocean releases a photo of a library card marked with a series of dates, a scarlet July 16 2016 stamp fuelling speculation around the release of his sophomore project. It’s been a four-year wait since his debut studio album ‘channel ORANGE’ catapulted the New Orleans native into mythical rankings, reconstructing the face of RnB in its entirety while synonymously building the framework for a cult following.
But then August 1 rolls around. Still, no album – instead, a puzzling black and white Apple Music video stream of a workshop on Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry website, containing bursts of static amongst an interplay of orchestral and ambient sounds. Ocean’s facial features are barely discernible from a distance, as he drives planks of wood through a churning saw.
Two weeks later and Ocean is back on the live stream. Songs replace the instrumentals, sound-tracking three Frank Oceans as they build a spiral staircase, occasionally checking their phones. This is ‘Endless’, the 45-minute visual album that tests the patience of fans who are disillusioned by its truncated, unfinished mood.
The staircase, however, is only the first of a myriad of artistic choices that require a second - and third/fourth/tenth - examination as a step in the process. A direct reference to Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s work ‘Endless Column’, the Tom Sach’s-directed ‘Endless’ begins and ends with excerpts from German fine-art photographer Wolfgang Tillman’s ‘Device Control’ EP, Tillman’s robotic voice critiquing modern technology with the multimedia mantra “Live-stream your life”.
ENTER ‘Blonde’ two days later. It arrives with pop-up stores for a 360-page Boys Don’t Cry zine (a release first teased in April 2015) that features a list of legendary collaborators and influences, behind-the-scenes insights, and bizarre poems - Kanye West attacks McDonalds’ “french fries” in his, Tyler, the Creator follows-up with the liberty-tinted title ‘Tricolour’.
Its rich context for Ocean’s second LP, but critical to an intricate network of meaning, best articulated by Sachs in an interview with Pitchfork: “Things that are made by hand take time”. Stylised ‘Blond’ on its cover, the album extends on the carpentry metaphor by unpacking the creation ethos, Ocean its sonic architect. Each of the 17 tracks paints a vivid picture, rooted in nostalgia and punctured by both multi-media and sheer talent.
‘Blonde’ opens with “Nikes” – a stumbling glitchy beat and pitch-shifted vocals juggle Shakespeare and materialism, a glitter-drenched accompanying video channeling David Bowie in its offhand melting of gender binaries. Ocean nods lyrically to Barack Obama’s speech following the fatal shooting of African American teen Trayvon Martin in 2012: “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me.” It offers commentary without the acidity of ‘Lemonade’, though Beyoncé makes an appearance on “Pink + White”. The Pharrell Williams-produced cut, arguably the closest trace of that comfortable ‘channel ORANGE’ structure, sees the pop icon’s dewy harmonies ring out behind a slick, slow-burning beat and Ocean’s warm vocals.
On “Skyline To”, Kendrick Lamar appears in sharp injections, while Swedish rapper Yung Lean and Slow Hollows’ frontman Austin Feinstein provide backing vocals on the heart-wrenching, pared-back “Self-Control”. Their vocals float over fluttering guitar licks, woozy strings, and helium highs, each echo of “I, I, I, know you gotta leave, leave, leave” feels like a hit in the guts. It’s rawness that requires recovery and handfuls of Kleenex by the final few bars. The most divergent feature comes in “Solo (Reprise)”, Andre 3000’s spit-fire verse races over digitised bleeps, his industry slam accentuated in staccato: “After 20 years in, I’m so naïve, I was under the impression that everyone wrote they own verses.” It ties in with Ocean’s move to cut Def Jam/Universal out by releasing ‘Blonde’ on his own Boys Don’t Cry label, just 24 hours after fulfilling contractual requirements with ‘Endless’.
‘Blond’’s collaborators aren’t name-drops – they act as silhouettes, performing in parentheses and adding to –rather than removing from - the poignancy of the surrounding wordplay and soundscapes. Moreover, the acute emotions in Ocean’s narratives are inextricably heightened by his publicised refusal to be labelled sexually, challenging RnB/hip hop’s traditionally glorified masculinity through spotlighting the how rather than the who in his love songs.
Co-produced by founding Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij and Jamie XX, “Ivy “ is a sunkissed serenade, Ocean’s vocals shrugging off nostalgia as he carefully crushes the rose-tinted lenses: “We’ll never be those kids again.” Hazy guitar on the track adds to the lush six-string sections throughout the LP, spanning metallic strums on “Nights” to feedback burbles on “Pretty Sweet” – the range a result of Johnny Greenwood’s (Radiohead) fingerprints, most likely. The trusted hands that worked on the album can be heard at each turn, Brian Eno and Rick Rubin’s experimental and minimalist handiwork at the forefront.
A voicemail from Ocean’s mother appears on “Be Yourself”, her stern warnings against drug use muffled by the ensuing double entendre on “Solo”, where Ocean’s elongated vocal runs lull the hook into “so low”. A recorded conversation also appears on “Facebook”, which transforms a rant from French producer SebastiAn into a powerful critique of relational issues in the social media age, underscored by tip-toeing synths and preceding the pulsing autotune reverie “Close to You”.
“White Ferrari” plucks lines from The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”, and is capped off with a James Blake soothing, crisp falsetto. The British electronic stalwart also recently sampled “Godspeed” – the song Ocean’s describes as “a reimagined part of my boyhood” – on‘The Colour In Anything’. “Seigfried” wrestles with drug addiction and domestic labels over a brooding bass line and Hitchcock-esque strings, the cut’s meaning magnified by references to Elliot Smith’s haunting “A Fond Farewell” and the singer-songwriter’s death in 2012 after a long battle with substance abuse.
Time and morality seep into closer “Futura Free”; the cut is the final look-back, and the final bolt. Ocean recalls when he used to “work on my feet for $7 an hour“ amid looped laughter, grainy static, and an old recording of interview with his little brother. It’s both alienating and inclusive, the layers sliding in and out just enough for us to peek into Ocean’s psyche.
After ‘channel ORANGE’, Ocean hinted that he would release a “novel text”, and ‘Blonde’ succeeds as just that. The album isn’t simply a matter of hitting play. The absence of cathartic ends and conventional arrangements means at time it feels incomplete – it takes a multiple head-phones-in replays in to comprehend (and perhaps more waiting, with the November 13 2016 date on the cryptic library card still imminent). One can only approach ‘Blonde’ as patron in a gallery; with every lap and extra moment spent looking at a piece, its meaning unravels another inch. Even after several laps, details have been missed, fine intricacies unnoticed. Ocean places the artistic process in focus, slightly blurring final product; it’s only when all the screws in the staircase are removed, the planks sanded back, that ‘Blonde’ ascends to the top.