Listening back to channel ORANGE, something that is particularly notable is just how much Frank Ocean is a pop-music classicist, not in terms of sound (although there is that, too), but in terms of structure. Each track on both channel ORANGE and also nostalgia, ULTRA is meticulously structured according to conventional pop wisdom. There’s always the chorus with a catchy hook, the 16-bar verses, the short intro, etc… Even the track promoted as the most experimental, Pyramids is essentially two fairly simplistic R&B songs fused together. This isn’t necessarily bad, and both of Ocean’s previous releases remain some of the strongest of the decade, but it more demonstrates how he evidently still felt pressure to please his label, and validate the mainstream audience. He was a pop songwriter before he was a solo artist, and until now, his music has been capital-P Pop music. However, with Blonde, he has abandoned pop completely.
More than perhaps any recent major release, Blonde is confounding on first listen. For an album released after such fervent anticipation, and with such grandiosity (he also released an accompanying visual album, Endless, following 3 weeks of intermittently streaming footage of the film to his fans), Blonde is almost shockingly sedate. Of the 17 tracks, only 5 of them feature any percussion at all. Only 4 have anything vaguely resembling a chorus. The mood is contemplative and angst-ridden, yet the soundscape is unfailingly beautiful. Even if it had been released under more conventional circumstances, Blonde would still defy expectations. Instead of creating any sort of sequel to channel ORANGE, Ocean has set off towards an entirely new sonic galaxy, one of startling ambition and beauty.
In his previous work, Ocean was always very good at compartmentalising topics by song. Each song would have a very specific topic, from the rejection of unrequited love of Bad Religion, to Swim Good‘s contemplation of suicide. The tracks on Blonde are different, functioning as something closer to tone poems than traditional pop songs. It’s difficult to describe the theme of the album due to its sheer depth, but the most apt description seems to be that it’s about feeling lost in the world. The lyrics are written as a stream-of-consciousness, such as on the opener Nikes, which at first seems to be a critique of materialism – “all you want is Nikes / but the real ones” – but slowly morphs into a story about about a drug trip at some sort of party – “acid on me like the rain / weed crumbles into glitter” – before Ocean propositions a stranger in his strangely compelling, jaded-but-romantic manner – “we’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you”.
Most of the tracks follow a structure akin to this, rarely staying on the same subject for more than a couple of lines. He rarely explicitly talks about his existentialist dread, but when he does it’s particularly affecting – “a moment one solar flare we’re consumed / so why not spend this flammable paper on the film that’s my life?” Rather, he tells tales of trying to make connections with the people he meets – “here’s to the gay bar you took me to / here’s when I realised you talk so much more than I do” – but being unable to, often due to his own unwillingness to commit or open up – “I came to visit cause you see me like a UFO / that’s like never, cause I made you use your self control”. He yearns to be loved, and the emotion can be heard in his magnificently expressive singing voice, but he just can’t seem to find someone, and is thusly cursed to wander amongst his own memories instead, hence the dreamy nature of the album’s structure.
Said dreamy atmosphere is aided by production that’s somehow both incredibly lush, and exactingly minimal. Many songs feature nothing but Ocean’s voice singing over a lone keyboard or guitar, but they’re recorded in such a way that they feel vibrant and full of life. Every instrument echoes into the next, creating the impression of one seamless experience. It’s challenging to find standout instrumental moments, simply because the album is so cohesive, but Nights perhaps takes the cake. The lone upbeat moment on the album, the mid-album track mixes chiming guitars with electronic beats, and is a refreshing change from the otherwise tranquil record. However, even the most minor tracks feel exquisitely produced. Be Yourself and Facebook Story, the two skits on the album both feature a sweetly sentimental synth backing-track, which allows them to cohere with the rest of the record.
More than anything else, Blonde feels like a bold album, in so many different ways. After 4 years of political turmoil, Ocean has released a largely apolitical album. Outside of one extremely moving line on Nikes – “RIP Trayvon, that n***a look just like me” – Ocean never mentions politics, instead allowing it to simply be another, hinted-at component of his anxiety. The same applies to his sexuality. As one of the few bisexual artists in the hip-hop sphere, Ocean could have made a statement out of his work, as he did on Forrest Gump, but instead the subjects of his songs are largely genderless. Ocean is much more concerned with the people themselves than what they represent, and that humanist approach is remarkable. Blonde is a masterful display of showing, not telling, as Ocean expresses so much through implication and assertion, whilst largely maintaining a perspective firmly inside his own mind. It’s likely to be a divisive album; anyone expecting the bangers of channel ORANGE will be disappointed, but instead they get something even better. Frank Ocean has bared his soul on Blonde, and created his masterpiece.