ALBUM REVIEW: Frank Ocean - Blond
As his visual album, Endless, dropped in dissonance to Channel Orange, fans scratched their heads, asking themselves, “Is this our Frank?” The angelic voice seemed to be directing his art away from the groovy, hip-hop timbre of the first album, toward a more cathartic R&B tonality. Three days later, what seemed to be a sonic transformation proved to be only an addition to Ocean’s skill set, when a second album broke through the surface. Blond was released on an independent label and is anything but a carbon copy of Endless. Stylistically, it’s more similar to Frank’s flair on Channel Orange, which brought him into the spotlight.
Blond’s first song, “Nikes,” begins with an organ-like synth and Ocean’s voice comes in a few octaves higher than normal. For me, the “little” voice appears as Ocean’s conscience and it wanders from heavier content, like police brutality and materialism, to more whimsical lines about little mermaids by the pool and b***** wanting Nike. The stream of consciousness is a more fluid approach that almost says, “These are my thoughts, but it’s just me.” Ocean does this to recognize himself as part of the movement, but reinforces his role as a storyteller who starts conversation. In times like today, being queer, Afro-American, and in the spotlight is difficult because people look to you to be the leader. Instead, Ocean chooses to provide his thoughts, but doesn’t lay them down as the law. The song tells the story of glittery fame, juxtaposing the realities behind that fame with an obvious distaste for materialism in our modern world. Three minutes into the song, the register drops and Ocean begins addressing the audience. The message remains similar, preaching to live in the moment (“living so that last night feels like a past life”) but tends toward personal experience as opposed to a comment on our world. Lyrics in the bridge lament having something special with someone that isn’t love, or what they have with someone else, but still is something meaningful, setting the tone for the next song and the content of the album as a whole.
“Ivy” chronicles “the start of nothing new” with an old lover and the problems that arise due to confusion of emotions and changes that happen with time spent away from that person. The manifestation of confusing emotions, as the feeling deep down is “still good,” but “it’s not the same,” is a motif carried throughout the album. There are a lot of songs out there about breakups and new love, but on this album, Frank does a marvelous job of telling the stories behind those imperfect, undefined relationships: the ones that aren’t right out of a fairytale. When I started this review, I asked many of my friends what their favorite songs on the album were, and I was confused when each person came at me with a different song. Usually, there is some sort of consensus, or a song that comes up a few times (probably the banger off of the album), but pretty much every song on the album got a shout out from my pals. This is most likely because each song talks about a very specific sort of relationship or situation, rather than finding a unique way to talk about the same cliché set of love stories. Channel Orange had a similar approach to discussing love, which is partially why I thought it was such innovative songwriting. This quality also contributes to the album’s ability to grow on you, because the complexity of the lyrics and the situations discussed takes a few listens to fully capture. There also may be a situation described that is too specific for someone to relate to currently, but they can come back to it in a year with greater sympathy. The reverb on the guitars is reminiscent of a slow-moving, California beach rock love song. By the end of the track, Ocean’s voice has been transformed via production to an aggressive, pseudo-robotic cry, as the anger and frustration in the lyrics grows. Then, cut music and just the echo of the last word, “dreaming,” resonates in the space left by the instruments. This is killer, as it generates the feeling of trying to grasp something that can really only be a dream, being left emptyhanded instead and the frustration that comes along with that.
“Pink + White” follows this song, setting the pace for the ebb and flow of the album. The triplet feel in the base line with the minimalistic piano counterpart creates a groove similar to that set by older songs like “Sweet Life,” which makes sense because both songs were produced by Pharrell. I am mentally taken to lazy walks that I like to take when the sun is setting in summertime because everything is brilliantly-colored and sits still for a moment before the craziness of the evening picks up. Frank paints a picture of the rosy haze surrounding experiencing a new kind of love, wherein instead of walking grounded, you waltz (¾ time) through the clouds. This is definitely one of those songs you should play for your s.o. when you’re lounging around in bed, with the shimmers of light coming through the shades of your window. The cloudscape is completed with the glittering voice of Beyoncé, the sunshine, who is also included on backing vocals.
Following, “Pink + White” is a female voice sample whose monologue sharply contrasts the lazy summer vibe of the previous track, warning whomever she is addressing to not use drugs and alcohol. Repetitively, the voice tells her audience to be themselves and continues preaching regarding typical temptations of a young adult. By the end of it, I was definitely thinking about my mom, and my feelings were validated when the voice signs off, “This is mom, Call me.” Ryan Ocean, Frank’s brother, later confirmed on Twitter that the sample was Auntie Rosie, who was also featured on the song “Not Just Money” from Channel Orange. A good family friend, the recording is an actual voicemail that one of Ocean’s friends received. The sample balances the copious drug references used in other songs and seamlessly introduces “Solo,” the next song. The primary instrument in “Solo” is an organ synth, thus the succession of tracks mimics a sermon followed by the church music, but of course, the lyrical content is far from the typical church experience. The track talks about being alone, getting high, and essentially coping with loneliness. Instead of the strong psalm of solitude one might expect from the title, Ocean’s melancholy melodies soar over the organ in a ballad, discussing the little things that are okay when you are alone; the heaven that exists within the hell that is separation.
“Skyline To” follows the night of ridin’ “Solo” with a story of summer love. Homoerotic musings brush the audience in Biblical references like, “Makin’ sweet love, takin’ time, ‘til god strikes us,” which I love. I love that he slips in his sexuality in such a normalized fashion, with pride, but just going on with his day-to-day life. This is how it should be. The song rolls through a druggy haze with a psychedelic synth accompaniment. Kendrick Lamar lends his vocals and none other than Tyler the Creator is the producer – guess it’s OFWGKTA for the win. The end result, tonally, is of a similar leaf to “Pink + White” with images of sun slipping through the window, turning into beams of moonlight. Finally, the mention of what no one wants to think about: the end of summer. Somehow, I don’t care that he made me think about starting school, though, because the melody and lyricism in this song slay me.
The whimsical voice of Frank’s conscience returns for the hook of “Self-Control” as he recalls a pool-side conversation, questioning whether he and the person he’s with and he can “make it shine.” The hook lets way to an acoustic guitar and Ocean croons, spilling his heart out over a past lover. This song digs into the stereotypical situation that starts over lust, but the flame within one of the people dies, causing disproportionate interest and eventually an end. Swedish rapper Yung Lean is featured on the chorus with Austin Feinstein of Slow Hollows, saying, “Keep a place for me, for me I’ll sleep between y'all, it’s nothing, It’s nothing, it’s nothing.” The repetition of “It’s nothing” mimics the repression of the other thoughts in one’s head; trying to play it cool. This lyric also pays a small amount of homage to Prince’s lyric “…I didn’t care…when he was there, sleeping in between the two of us” from “When U Were Mine,” which Frank covered on his last tour. The perspective is different because Prince talks about the person coming between he and his lover, whereas Frank wishes to be the one coming between his significant other and the person with whom they’re sleeping.
After pouring his heart out, Frank recounts a blind date he had in New York city, set up by one of his mutual friends, on the track “Good Guy.” This mini-track is cut from the same emotional cloth as “Self-Control;” Ocean ripples from emotionless hookup to emotionless hookup. It’s nice to know that even superstars have problems with finding someone who wants something real. Then, at the end of the song, there is a clip of two men in a car, talking about girls wrecking their hearts, but it cuts midline to my new cruisin’ anthem, “Nights.” It’s as if the Frank, whose feelings weren’t returned, hits that “snap out of it” wall, vibin’ onto a more up-tempo track.
Although “Nights” dissertates the hustle, it also references other parts of Ocean’s “everyday shit,” including the people he’s seeing on the side of his work. He reminisces on days where he had less money and worked night shifts. Manifested is the feeling of wanting to have someone there to come home to, but also being married to the grind and not being able to keep up something more serious. The cyclical thoughts build to waterfalls of notes echoing into a phone ringing, then silence. This felt like when I lie in bed at night and thoughts bounce around until finally I go to sleep, but in a tempo change that screams Frank Ocean. The change signals the entry into dreamland: deep bass kicks in and the mix feels like bubbles of rolling piano chords, slowly finding their way to the surface – perfect for a final verse about memories deeper in Ocean’s past. The hook returns over the same production, cessation echoing into a “Solo Reprise” by André 3000.
The halfway point in the album coincides with the tempo change so it makes sense that the reprise comes after, returning to themes from the beginning of the album. André’s rapid flow blew my mind the first time I heard the track, accompanied by just piano for most of the song. He bemoans police brutality and materialism, touching on his unhappiness with the music industry, asking at the end, “Was I working just way too hard?” Cut immediately to “Pretty Sweet,” which has an intro that’s anything but sweet. More of an auricular experiment, what starts as complete chaos and dissonance within the synth chords turns into less dissonant guitar, but there remains a lack of structure. Ocean’s flow is at times melodic, but the phrasing of the verse is syncopated and some lines remain unfinished. A chorus of children at the end turn the sonic trip into a shimmer of major chords, sunshine, and happiness: disharmony resolved.
The next voice on the album has much too thick of a French accent to be Frank Ocean, and that’s because it’s French DJ and producer SebastiAn. He actually “programmed” several of the tracks on Endless, including one of my favorites, “Rushes.” He spoke about Frank recording the story when they were just hanging out in an interview with Pitchfork, confirming the skit to be a true story. “Facebook Story” echoes previous mentions of technology bending what people consider to be reality, making them “crazy.” After all, the relationship ended when the DJ wouldn’t immediately accept an official request on Facebook when he was with the friend. A similar message rests in the lyrics of Wolfgang Tillman’s track, “Device Control,” that premiered at the beginning and end of the visual album: people are unable to live their reality without their technology intertwined.
Next is a cover of what originally was “(They Long To Be) Close to You” by The Carpenters. It truly sounds more similar to a live Talkbox cover of the Carpenters song done by Stevie Wonder due to the production of Ocean’s voice. A talkbox is one of the original tools used by musicians for vocal modification, so covering a cover, adding even more technology and production, is playing even further into the picture of virtual reality that Ocean continues to paint. It is a nice compliment to the last skit, as Ocean sings of longing to be close to an anonymous lover in this lyric collage cover.
Remember a year ago when A-Trak hinted that in a few weeks we would hear a song called “White Ferrari” that would be the best thing we would hear that year? Then how it really stunk when it didn’t come? Well, ladies and gents, here it is, THE “White Ferrari,” track 14 on the album. Lennon/McCartney are credited on this track for a similarity in lyrics to the song “Here, There, and Everywhere.” The tone is nostalgic, the content being an old relationship and the purity of the love he found. The melody stands strong in front of major synth chords that eventually change to guitar while still remaining predominantly low texture. The last lines of the outro are sung by James Blake until breaking through to the clarity of “Siegfried.”
“Seigfried” is obviously a break-up song, but it dives into the world of Ocean’s other life experiences and musings on the nature of his mind. He pays homage to Elliott Smith’s haunting song regarding substance abuse, “A Fond Farewell,” in saying a “fond farewell to a friend,” and through the lo-fi quality of the guitars. The repeated references to bravery make me think that the title refers to the warrior Siegfried (slightly different spelling) of Norse mythology who often symbolizes bravery, and his story ends in the perfect fairytale with a princess. Ocean believes that the suburban, settled life is not for him and that he’s not brave. Additionally, the warrior could be representative of Ocean’s ex-boyfriend, Willy Cartier, who looks similar to depictions of Siegfried with long, flowing locks and a “speckled face” that Ocean mentions in the first verse. There is also the possibility of the title instead referencing Siegfried Sassoon, a British poet and soldier, who is actually more similar to Ocean in his bisexual experiences. Sassoon also had a romance with Wilfred Owen, who fell madly in love with him, but the love was not returned. The conclusion of thought is that Frank Ocean would do anything for whomever he’s talking to, in a desperate final cry for the lost relationship.
“Godspeed” has a fitting ecclesiastic organ accompaniment and Kim Burrell, who many consider to be one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, sings the outro. The song matches titles with a story that Frank wrote in the Boys Don’t Cry magazine, and I think that the following quote he shared with fans speaks for itself:
“It’s basically a reimagined part of my boyhood. Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.”
He shared this as a note, reminiscing about the making of the album in two Tumblr posts that you can read here. The note containing the quote is shared in the form of a collage with an image of a gold BMW. “Futuara Free,” the final song on the album, has a title reference to Stanely Kubrick’s favorite typeface and is divided into two parts by a silent interlude. If you thought there was a problem with the audio, you better go back and listen again. The beautiful melody recounts all of Ocean’s accomplishments and from where he came. The verse moves in a stream of consciousness, free-falling through pop culture references and lamenting the stress that comes with being famous. The second part, post silence, is a clip of an interview with Illegal Civilization, a skater gang that hangs with Odd Future in LA. The interview was conducted by Ryan Breaux, Ocean’s brother, years ago and includes silly interview questions, lots of background noise and interview clips with Mikey Alfred, Sage Elsesser and Na-kel Smith. The video ends the album, fading into a lighthearted rosy haze, in the hands of the youth. It also works well with the large amounts of sampling and collaboration that Ocean uses on the album, truly showcasing that an artist pulls influence from everywhere.
Overall, it was worth the wait. Each track stands as artwork and they are sewn together with the motion of the Ocean, into a masterpiece.