I’m not exactly sure why, but I feel like Blonde, Frank Ocean’s long-awaited third record, could go away at any moment. Lemme just check real quick … yes, it’s still there.
There’s something about Blonde (née Boys Don’t Cry) that feels even more elusive than 2016’s other long-awaited splashes. It’s partly because of how much we’ve been teased – first it was a July 2015 release date, then July 2016, then 8/5 – but Avalanches fans scoff at an album merely 13 months overdue. Maybe it’s the last-second name change? That’s nothing compared to Kanye’s indecision. No, I think it’s because of the nature of Frank’s music itself.
2012’s channelORANGE was an emotional experience, prefaced by the artist’s moving Tumblr post about a man he fell in love with. It was one gleaming anthem after another about the triumphs and challenges of being honest with yourself. Ocean’s voice became the voice that told us it was OK to feel lost, OK to pour out our feelings to a stranger, OK to be hopelessly in love, thinking about forever. Four years is a long time to wait to hear that voice again.
And on the opening track and debut single, “Nikes,” Ocean toys with our separation anxiety. A bed of dreamy synths begs him to break out that falsetto, but instead Ocean pitch-alters his voice to unrecognizable lows. That warmth and vulnerability is stunted, fighting to stay pure through whirlwinds of materialism and drugs. “Demons try to body jump,” he warns, setting a bleak tone of self-preservation that is at least one of the prevailing themes of this overtly inscrutable record.
It’s awfully hard to analyze what Blonde actually means after a few listens. Ocean does not give us the benefit of a roadmap this time around; he’s far less interested in clear narratives – and for that matter, beats, hooks and choruses. The most immediately arresting tracks on the album are as stripped down as a folk song. A lone keyboard run symbolizes the thin line between heaven and hell on a song called “Solo.” “Godspeed” is in a similar boat, giving Ocean nothing more than some subdued gospel organ and scattered backup vocals to work with. “Self Control” wrings every drop of pathos out of a stranded, Tracy Chapman-ish electric guitar line. All of these songs are gorgeous, their messages of hope through loneliness, of integrity through selflessness, ringing all the deeper for how starkly they’re delivered. By following a richly layered, widely celebrated masterpiece with a raw singer/songwriter album that’s sure to divide his audience, Ocean has pulled a reverse Joni Mitchell.
It’s no coincidence that my favorite tracks are the ones where the production clears the way to let Frank flat-out sing. His voice remains his genius. While it’s probably going to be rewarding to parse the Othello and Little Mermaid references of “Nikes,” Ocean is still better at letters than poems. “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight,” he proclaims in “Self Control,” his yearning laid bare, full-throated and utterly heartbreaking. The more I feel the impact of moments like these, the less I worry that they’re somehow going to be stolen from me.
Ocean struggles a bit with the connective tissue tracks, those little 1-2 minute breaks that helped make channelORANGE such a perfectly sequenced experience. “Good Guy” dampens the poignant heartache of its lyrics with tossed-off tape-recorder fidelity. The French DJ Sebastian wastes our time with a story about a girlfriend getting upset because he wouldn’t friend her on Facebook (she’s right to be suspicious, dude). A voicemail from Ocean’s mom about being yourself is so on the nose, we may have to call an ambulance. When an album has been clearly obsessed over for as long as Blonde has, you’ve gotta wonder how these snippets still made the cut.
So, at first blush, this is not an instantly accessible, world-conquering work of art like its predecessor. It’s a messier, less sonically assured, more challenging experience. It’s entirely possible that I will like it less once the joy of hearing his voice again wears off.
But I don’t think so. The more I listen, the more I see Blonde as a bold, unfettered document of an artist beloved for his honesty, struggling with the trappings and temptations of fame. Struggling so much that I almost worry about him. “I want to see Nirvana / but don’t want to die,” he sings on “Nights.” It’s the first of two mentions of the band on this album. “Close to You” is an interpolative cover of The Carpenters’ classic, with new lyrics but the same melody. “Why am I preaching / To this choir, to this atheist,” he sings through the trappings of AutoTune. Then, on the solemn, introspective “Siegfried,” he sings the chorus from Elliott Smith’s “A Fond Farewell.” Here are callbacks to three artists, all destroyed by the burdens of societal pressure and their own personal demons. On some level, Frank Ocean feels a connection with them. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws.
OK, I feel better. Blonde has grabbed me. It’s here to stay.