UK Release Date – 20th August 2016
Four years isn’t an especially long time to wait for an album – certainly not long in a year that boasts the release of The Avalanche’s Wildflower, American Football’s upcoming self-titled sophomore, and the possibility of a new LCD Soundsystem album. Even the new Bon Iver album supersedes the seemingly mammoth wait time for Blonde. Part of the mass hysteria and unending desire for Blonde is resultant of continually broken promises, but more substantially in the knowledge that this album actually exists – something that couldn’t be said for any of those aforementioned. The elusiveness of the album only heightened the hype for a Frank Ocean masterpiece, an album sure to be his magnum opus based solely on the continual delays, buildup, and non-stop music journalism prophesising Blonde’s arrival. Yet Blonde’s coming initially seemed to be a confusing anticlimax to all: it was no longer called Boys Don’t Cry, it arrived on none of the expected release dates, and it followed another Frank Ocean audio-visual album, Endless. And the biggest surprise of all? How understated Blonde is.
Both nostalgia, ULTRA and channel ORANGE and to some extent Ocean’s back catalogue – handily compiled as the Lonny Breaux Collection – rely heavily on catchy hooks, melodic choruses, and an expansive immediacy in the songwriting and structure. Blonde dispels these more confronting elements and replaces them with a distanced contemplation that rewards the listener most when listened to as a complete album. Lead single Nikes seems to have been released as a single only out of necessity and the A$AP Rocky featuring track seems to be an altogether baffling choice, lacking, as it does, any memorable impact as a single other than to highlight the impending release of Blonde. And yet, when it is placed in the context of the album, Nikes holds a far more compelling and restrained purpose: in losing the formality of a single, Nikes, opens the album amid a hazy, spacious reflection on commercialism that delves into nostalgia amid pointedly sad remarks on recent deaths and his own similarities to Trayvon Martin. The three minutes it takes to finally hear Ocean’s voice proper doesn’t feel like a tease in the album context but rather sets the tone of the introspective and contained work to come, immediately validated in the nostalgia dripped guitar swathe Ivy that delves into familiar Frank Ocean themes of past loves and failed relationships that continue to prevail throughout Blonde. The tone endures through dreamy, stripped back songs such as Self Control, the Pharrell infected Pink and White, and various others that see Ocean wallow in nostalgia from a position of cloud-like hindsight. The instrumentals are luscious and hazy, gorgeously warm, contained yet necessary; no needless audio clutter mars the songs of Ocean’s storytelling ability. Blonde is a skeletal album, utilising only essential instruments to allow for the brooding storytelling to remain the focus. The pinnacle of this new form is undoubtedly White Ferrari, a heart-wrenching Justin Vernon influenced love ode that borrows lyrics from The Beatles’ ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. White Ferrari is an emotional tour-de-force that masters the subdued emotional integrity presented throughout Blonde.
“It is incredibly frustrating to have some of Frank Ocean’s best work juxtaposed and interspersed between excessively languid and formless breaks”
Yet for all of Frank Ocean’s introspective sensitivity and airy instrumentals, the album can seem increasingly tepid at times. None of the songs are needless or lackluster as such, rather the absence of variation prevents quieter moments from being as effective as could be. Seemingly eternal warm swashes of synthesizers and guitars replace monoliths like channel ORANGE’s ‘Pyramids’ or structured pop hits such as ‘Swim Good’ and, perhaps most noticeably, large chunks of the album lack any drum sections at all that can lead to Blonde feeling stationary. The familiar thematic content lacks the emotional pull it once did and becomes increasingly familiar through the stripped back production that focuses whole-heartedly on meditative memories. Nights is the first injection of an alternative to the spacious wallowing ballads and still ends up completely upstaged by Andre 3000’s ferocious guest verse on the following song, Solo Reprise, that surmises Blonde’s nostalgia and isolation in a densely packed minute of impeccable lyrical flow. Andre 3000 questions his own memories and naivetés by confronting the modern day rapper and their abilities to write bars for themselves, ultimately pondering whether he just ‘worked way too hard’ in a rather unsubtle gesture towards the perpetually over-rated Drake. All of Blonde’s understated slow burning musings of distorted truth up to Solo Reprise get summarised in one guest verse that lasts no longer than a minute and a half whilst simultaneously raising the question: why has Blonde taken such a long and vacuous time to progress so minutely, lyrically or musically?
Blonde is undoubtedly an album that will go from strength to strength with repeated listening (it almost feels rude to review it after only one week), and it could be easy to mistake Blonde as ‘bad’ simply because it shatters all prior preconceptions of what the album should sound like. The problem with the album isn’t the alternative subdued musical direction – Blonde certainly delivers some of Frank Ocean’s greatest work that showcases how much he can do with the bare minimum – but rather the length of time taken for the album to actually progress. The themes present in Blonde are far from groundbreaking Frank Ocean territory as both nostalgia, ULTRA and channel ORANGE play with distortion of time, nostalgia, heartbreak, and substance abuse, all of which feature heavily throughout the album. The record itself hesitates to vary from these themes and only in some cases refines Ocean’s previously established style, such as White Ferrari or Solo. It is incredibly frustrating to have some of Frank Ocean’s best work juxtaposed and interspersed between excessively languid and formless breaks that prevent such moments of brilliance from flourishing by dousing them in a wishy-washy stoner glow that inhibits the album. Whilst the warm, minimal sound deployed can be breathtaking, such long segments of sparsity can make it feel achingly dull and more of an interesting detour than one to be revisited. Blonde is an album that will thrive over time and reward with repeated listens, but perhaps most regrettably, it lacks the captivation necessary to win a listener back to reap the rewards Blonde has to offer.
Image: Frank Ocean/Def Jam