Album review: Blond suits a talent like Frank Ocean, who’s proved himself to be a storyteller
After releasing a free mixtape in 2011, and an album in 2012, Frank Ocean disappeared. It’s been an agonising four years for fans of the perfectionist musician who in his time away from the spotlight had seen his legend grow. On 2012’s Channel Orange, Ocean established himself as a bright new talent, moving easily between rap, R&B and pop — his music distancing himself from the rough and tumble sound of the Odd Future collective, with which he was associated.
Over the years, he’s communicated with the public in snippets on his Tumblr — on the passing of Prince, and homophobia — all of them eloquently written, but not once has he given an inkling of plans for a release date. It comes as no surprise, then, that fans and critics alike have been waiting for a second album. So awaited was his follow up, that the New York Times got in on the act — announcing a 5 August release date for the album, then called Boys Don’t Cry — that came and went.
Then on 19 August, just as Beyoncé did earlier this year — he released a visual album, Endless. A day later, as fans were beginning to digest the 45-minute long piece of music (the official release is not broken into tracks, though there are unofficial versions which are), came the video for Nikes, a slow build of a song on which it takes over 2 minutes for Ocean’s voice to appear. Finally on 20 August, he released his second album in as many days.
The music on Blond is different from anything on Channel Orange, and in many ways seems to be unlike most mainstream music released today. It favours mood over melody (though songs like 'Pink + White', 'White Ferrari' and 'Self Control' are just some that will work as standalone singles). Blond is woozy — an album that meanders and digresses — one that seems amorphous, and suits a talent like Ocean, who’s proved himself to be a storyteller on his previous album.
So while opener 'Nikes' leaves listeners waiting to hear Ocean’s voice, the beat builds, layering a chimpmunk vocal chorus over a meditative beat that builds to when Ocean’s voice finally emerges, with lilting Spanish guitar chords welcoming us, into the world of Blond. That world is one that Ocean has built meticulously and without compromise. If the news in the aftermath of the release of both Endless and Blond is to be believed, Endless was released to fulfil a contract with Def Jam, the record company Ocean had signed with, while Blond was self released, allowing Ocean to have complete control over the music, as well as profit from its release.
Songs like 'Pink + White' are reminiscent of the Ocean that put out Channel Orange — structured as it is with a piano line that bridges the divide between the auto-tuned vocals and bass heavy beat, others seem to float but never coalesce into anything more than an ethereal, gauzy soundtrack. Other standouts include 'Self Control' (which moves from restrained to something approaching triumphant in the span of 4 minutes), 'Nights' (a druggy drawn out slow jam), 'White Ferrari' and 'Godspeed'.
This doesn’t mean that album is a slog, or even a challenge to get through. Instead what Blond seems to be, is a conscious attempt to subvert any narrative that the media can put on it. It can sometimes seems to be the musical equivalent of a stream of consciousness missive — pouring fourth, and waiting to be unpacked with each listen.
Broken up with skits that features a mother figure (on 'Be Yourself'), a rapid fire verse from Outkast’s Andre 3000 — on 'Solo (Reprise)', and 'Facebook Story' which features French musican and producer SebastiAn — the album finds ways to jolt you out its languidness.
Blond like other releases this year (most notably James Blake’s The Colour in Anything, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and even Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound) rewards sustained listening over snap judgments. The songs take their time to get under your skin and each playback opens up nuances in the music, especially when heard on headphones — where Ocean, the noted perfectionist — has layered instruments and synths to create and lush if sometimes impenetrable undergrowth. One listen you’ve discerned a new lyric, while later, you’ll discover similarities with Ocean’s previous output — each time you put in on becomes a vehicle to explore the music.
What does stand out though is the attention to detail, and that fact that Ocean, who’s made his fans wait for four years since the last release, before putting out two albums — doesn’t see his music as a perfunctory means of expression. It often seems listening to Blond that the album gives form to the morass of his mind, with moments of clarity — which any 20-something year old has also felt, as they try and suss out their place in the world.