Blonde is here. Now we must decide if Frank Ocean can be forgiven.
“It’s been four years!” roars Twitter’s collective hive-mind, processing the emotional strain of this impossibly long wait, which ultimately manifests as subpar memes and 140-character rants yelled into the blogospheric wind. “Boys Don’t Cry, Coming This Week” proclaim poor, hapless music journalists, as they fumble in the dark, desperate for something to report. “I got two versions”, says Frank Ocean, inadvertently stoking the raging fire of fanatical impatience and frustration even more. But Frank’s finally done it. Like a bucket of bleach, he’s turned the dark in which he left his fans into light. So, what is Blonde like?
After releasing Channel Orange, Ocean toyed with the idea of forgoing musicianship altogether for other pursuits, discussing how much more he valued the art of storytelling than the music itself.
“It’s the more interesting part about making music for me.”
Blonde was seemingly constructed around this notion; minimalist structures rule completely, and not once is the music permitted to outshine the narrative, regardless of its brilliance. Some tracks (Be Yourself, Facebook Story) focus almost entirely on the sentiment they endorse, as though Ocean considers these would-be erudite vignettes too important to be tainted by music. As for the rest of the songs, most thrive in their barebones beauty. From the jangle-pop dulcitude of Ivy to the remarkable self-control exerted over the arrangements of Self Control, simplicity is key. Listening to Blonde, the late, great Charles Mingus comes to mind, who seems capable of posthumously describing its method of operation perfectly:
“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple – that’s creativity.”
The few convoluted or obscure outliers which deviate from this approach are equally successful, with the exception of the album’s closer. Rather like Kendrick Lamar did with To Pimp a Butterfly, Ocean ends an otherwise selflessly-written album with a bout of self-indulgence. Futura Free is an ambitious but bathetic odyssey – one that is neither artsy nor endearing, and is essentially a microcosm of the majority of Blonde’s flaws.
The discernible contributors are few and far between, but are mostly of the highest calibre, and seldom detract from Ocean’s brainchild. Even Yung Lean’s decision to trade his mediocrity for unnecessity doesn’t hinder the radiance of Self Control, on which he sings for a sum total of one chorus. André 3000’s impeccably delivered harangue on Solo (Reprise) is a perfect palate-cleanser, whilst James Blake’s subtle inclusion on album highlight White Ferrari is sublime. Hell, Ocean’s even relegated the purveyor of one of this year’s most acclaimed albums to singing backup on Pink + White (it was my understanding that nobody puts Bey in a corner).
In the final entry to my Pear Up column, I speculated as to what kind of album Blonde would be. It’s experimental, elusive, and introspective. It vacillates between the idiosyncratic soul of Channel Orange and a whole new brand of warped pop music. It features Boards of Canada-esque interludes, otherworldly string-section convulsions, discreet near-trap sketches and gospel lilt. It boasts an abundance of guitar for someone who’s labelled as an R&B singer at every turn. It’s a well-considered change of pace, owing to Ocean’s knowledge that the only way to surpass an artistic paragon like Channel Orange is to tread new ground.
It has its flaws. Sometimes it’s awkward, fragmented, or entirely unsure of itself, but these occasions are when it really drives its messages home, because these arethe qualities that Ocean explores throughout. Blonde’s stripped-down arrangements complement the lyrics exceptionally for most of the album, but occasionally the music goes a step further. “I’m not brave!” Ocean cries mournfully on Siegfried, as the strings distort and Yes-like guitars glitter in the song’s periphery. Potential melodies wither and die in the air during Pretty Sweet, as Ocean’s discursive, quasi-Dadaist lyrics roll over a Hellish, uncharted landscape of destruction and deconstruction. His presence on the heartbreaking and ironically-named Close to You sounds more achingly distant than ever before, whilst the airy, ethereal textures of Skyline To go hand in hand with the stream-of-consciousness style thoughts which Ocean proffers.
Just as the grapheme-colour synaesthesia referenced by Channel Orange’s title refers to the relationship between letters and colours, there’s a near-symbiotic link between Blonde’s lyrics and its music. Flaws are flaws, and this is no attempt to excuse Blonde’s few musical shortcomings, but matching the modest weaknesses of your music with your deepest flaws and greatest insecurities is easily the best possible way of ameliorating that music’s faults. I still don’t know what kind of album Blonde is. All I know for certain is that, for all its flaws, this is an album that matters.