We could talk all day about the build-up to Blonde. In my review of Endless, I mentioned the monumental task that Ocean had in front of him after releasing his near-instant classic Channel Orange. Even though I was quite impressed by the haphazard brilliance of Frank’s precursor album, the idea of what the real deal would finally sound like still carried a certain tension. Would he finally be able to stand in front of the world and deliver his next chapter or would he fall into the category of artists doomed to be reduced to their first album for the rest of time. Let’s just say that the first beat of the album breathes an immediate sigh of relief. “Nikes” is a perfect Frank Ocean song. The slightly nostalgic beat emerges with wholehearted optimism. Then Ocean returns gloriously, his voice climbing up to high note. The choice for the electronic vocal effect is perfect, hiding his new-found confidence for the first couple minutes of the song leading into the moment when Frank finally pulls off his mask fully re-entering the world as his unadulterated self. Perhaps the album has some relatively lacking hooks, perhaps it over-emphasizes melancholy moodiness, but the return of Frank Ocean is certainly a spectacular feat.
“Ivy” follows with a much different sound. Here, Ocean dabbles in power pop; a powerful rock melody soars over chugging guitars as nostalgic lyrics spill straightforward angst about young love: “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me.” Guitar becomes a bit of a re-occurring theme on the record, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood adding an instrumental flare into the Frank Ocean lexicon. “Pink+White” continues the momentum with a floating piano melody complementing another glorious baritone melody. The song ends in a big way. Sweeping vocals enter the space, replacing the bubbly playfulness of the beginning of the song with a much more impactful final blow. On “Solo,” Ocean seemingly draws from the classic country playbook; his intervallic vocal melody is accompanied solely by wobbling organ with optimism bleeding from every corner. The chorus here shows a lot of maturity in Frank. Although he has never been afraid to carry a melody alone, the belted high notes in this song showcase him at his most ambitious to date.
After pondering general coming of age, summer ideas on “Skyline, To,” Ocean creates his next massive moment on “Self Control.” A song about the end of a summer relationship, “Self Control” begins simply, laid back beach vibes provided by the playful guitar part. As the song progresses, the tone becomes a bit more somber leading into the ending. A longing guitar solo looms before Ocean comes to the terms with the end of the relationship in question: “I, I, I, know you gotta leave take down some summertime.” A chorus of Franks belt these words the wall of sound amassing an astounding emotional impact. The second half of the record features a few more bits and pieces of ideas with more long form brilliance coming together on “White Ferrari” and “Seigfried,” before ending in ambiance with “Futura Free.”
Blonde wholly commits itself to Frank himself. Even when features come into question, Frank’s voice and personality dominate. This is most obvious for the Kendrick Lamar feature on “Skyline, To” where Lamar is simply used to re-iterate some of the lines from the vocal melody, but in other locations features enter the space without distracting from Ocean’s work. On “Self Control” Yung Lean and Austin Feinstein add phrases into each chorus only to further the impact of Frank’s words. “Solo (Reprise)” is essentially an extended Andre 3000 verse, but the flow of the song fits into the album easily, ironing over the transition from the laid back beat of “Nights” to the intense distortion of “Pretty Sweet”.
In the same way that the album shifts attention to certain features without fully removing the spotlight from Ocean himself, the album also lifts ideas from classic artists to offer brief tributes. This strategy comes into place on “Seigfried,” where Ocean lifts a vocal line from Elliot Smith, whom he credits in his art zine “Boys Don’t Cry.” For the most part, Ocean just offers beautiful melodic work on the song, but he takes a break from his own styling to repeat the lyrics and melody from Smith’s “a fond farewell:” “this is not my life/it’s just a fond farewell to a friend.” On Endless, Frank took influence from an Isley Brother song and extended his reach into various other sounds. Here he shows just how embedded into his soul these influences can get.
Blonde is a big album and it’s easily a contender for the album of the year. Frank Ocean has returned without any sense of disappointment. A new-found maturity comes through as Ocean advances the art of belting one’s heart out, with songwriting genius adding more weight to every uttered word. Perhaps the slimmest lack of contrast is present and perhaps Ocean spends a bit too much time on 1-2 minute songs, but this record is just about as good as it gets.