Album Review: Frank Ocean - Blonde

When Frank Ocean provided vocals on Tyler, the Creator’s She, a weird track about a guy dealing with his new girlfriend’s stalker, I never thought that the owner of those silky-smooth tones would go on to be the undisputed king of avant-garde R&B.

Part of Ocean’s appeal comes from the unknowable, untouchable shroud he has created around himself. Unlike his contemporaries, he isn’t constantly in the news, nor does he overshare or feud with people on social media. In the four year gap between his critically acclaimed debut Channel Orange and second album Blonde, his fans were jumping at shadows, attributing any weird gaps in label releases or appearances by Ocean to an imminent release of new music.

He’s hooked us all with his talent, kept us fascinated by telling us absolutely nothing about himself and his work and then dropped the musical equivalent of an unlocked diary on our laps. Of course, we were going to tear into it and devour it whole. Ocean uses Blonde to explore his childhood, his sexuality, past and future relationships – both romantic and professional – and his own thoughts on his career and mind set following his sudden success and critical acclaim.

Blonde is slow and methodical and rewards listeners who are able to put time and patience into the play through. There’s no lead single or radio-friendly earworms included on the album. Instead, there are just moments of pure beauty and awe. Tracks like Ivy showcase Ocean’s incredible vocal talents and his ability to paint a tender and sombre picture backed only by a muted bass and shoegaze guitar strokes. Solo features a more energetic Ocean, who switches between a border-line rap and gospel style chorus which blends perfectly with the lonely church organ that accompanies him. Frank’s vocals are full of pain and melody as they croon over the top of a tightly played electric guitar on Self Control.

There’s no lead single or radio-friendly earworms included on the album. Instead, there are just moments of pure beauty and awe.
– Sam Brookes

That’s not to say that Blonde is perfect. If your listening mantra is “Let’s see what the first track is like” you would probably have deleted the album after album opener, Nike. I’m no expert on the history or nuances of R&B, but the high-pitched chipmunk vocals immediately recalled memories of Akon’s Lonely, a track I despised when I was at secondary school. It’s overlong and doesn’t really have a lot to say for itself. Moved back a track or five and it would have been a skippable interlude, but as an opening track, it fails spectacularly.

There are some interesting interludes included on the album. Facebook Story features a European narrator, telling the tale of an ex-girlfriend who destroyed their relationship due to an obsession with his friend list. Be Yourself is an answering machine message left by his room mate’s mother for Ocean and his roommate whilst they were at college, warning him about the dangers of drugs and peer pressure. Both land with mixed results – especially Be Yourself which doesn’t really have a clear message. Some people have said it’s a sweet example of motherly concern, others say it’s a clearly an anti-drug message, one that is both repeated and contradicted at different points in the album.

To me, it seems like one big eye-roll. It’s all well and good for a parent to give this kind of lecture in-person and in response to a drug incident, but this is just a rambling message left on an answering machine, with no prompt or reason. She repeatedly interrupts herself to say “It’s Mom. Call me” which kind of confirms that she just rang the answering machine and chose to release a diatribe-style motherly lecture. There seem to be a thousand interpretations, but mine is Frank shrugging off this kind of interference that comes from outside powers, whether they’re critics, fans or contemporaries.

The talent on display in this album is awe-inspiring. Frank shuns the regular stalwarts of the genre and elects to record stripped down songs featuring no more than two instruments and hardly any percussion, which allows his incredible voice to take centre stage, where it should be. Whilst I would say some of the risks he takes fall flat, especially on the intro and interludes, I would have bought the album just for Frank’s voice alone.