Blonde (released August 20, 2016)
2016 has become the year of the improbable comeback.
Back in the spring, I was ecstatic to see Tweet return to form after a 10-year hibernation. That return was outdone a couple of months later when Maxwell rebounded from milk-box status to drop one of the best albums of the year.
But both those returns have been overshadowed by the re-emergence of the rarest Pokemon of them all.
If you know Frank Ocean, you know his story – a 2012 debut album that has become a critical darling, four years of follow-up release dates that have moved around more than Jamie Foxx’s hairline, and a bizarre visual album that felt more like a collection of unfinished demos that a fully-formed LP.
After an agonizing wait,
Boys Don’t Cry Blonde has finally arrived – just don’t expect a carbon copy of Ocean’s renowned Channel Orange. Sonically, it syncs up with its predecessor, filled with the same contemplative, moody production that has become Frank’s trademark. But there are scant few standout tracks – no “Pyramids,” no “Thinking About You” – that you’ll rush to on subsequent listens. Most tracks play off each other instead of shining on their own, with the stripped down production meshing Ocean’s concepts into one big narrative.
Instead of 17 individual tracks, Blonde almost feels like one 60-minute long song – one that challenges the listener to decode its intricacies.
It’s not often than Frank lets us into his world. And when he does, he makes you work for it.
In the four years since we last hung out with Frank, he’s become much more guarded and cynical about love and life. Ocean uses subtlety to diss his former lover on “Self Control,” wishing that the couple “grew up on the same advice” and tells his girl “Keep a place for me, for me/I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.” He laments that “we’ll never be those kids again” on “Ivy” while casting an eye toward injustice on “Nikes” – “RIP Trayvon, that n***a look just like me.”
But in most cases, the soundscapes of Blonde tell a better story than the actual lyrics. “Nikes” switches tempo at least three times, constantly keeping your ear engaged. The keys of “Solo” aren’t far removed from an Easter Sunday organ while “Pretty Sweet” alternates between a frantic pace and notes from a children’s choir. “Nights,” one of the few songs that could be in conversations for radio play, features Frank leaping from hi-hats and guitar licks. “Pink + White” and “Skyline To” shimmer with twinkling keys and fluttering flutes. By the way, both those songs features split-second cameos from both Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, respectively. Only Frank would have the audacity to demote two of the game’s biggest stars to uncredited background vocals.
One star that clearly shines is fellow musical hermit Andre 3000, who transforms “Solo (Reprise)” into his own showcase. Dre, the weary veteran, reflects on the current music scene with apathy:
So-lo that I am no rookie but feel like a kid
Lookin’ at the other kids
With astonishment while I’m on punishment, watching the summer come close to an end
After 20 years in
I’m so naive I was under the impression that everyone wrote they own verses
It’s comin’ back different and yeah that s*** hurts me
From 3 Stacks’ industry confessional to producer Sebastian’s “Facebook Story” interlude – where he explains how his relationship with a woman crumbled when he simply neglected to accept her Facebook friend request – Blonde is wrought with raw emotion. That cynicism often takes a heavy toll on the listener – and Frank himself – at times (“I couldn’t gauge your fears/I can’t relate to my peers/I’d rather live outside/I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here,” he croons on “Seigfried”).
The album’s hazy production may seem to meander at times, but there’s a deeper story to be told. While Channel Orange focused on Ocean’s attempts at acceptance, Blonde is a depiction of his frustration with a world that struggles to understand him. It’s a journey that many listeners can relate to, no matter how bumpy the ride.
Blonde might not be the story Channel Orange fans wanted to hear, but it’s one they need to hear.
Best tracks: “Pink + White,” “Nights,” “Solo (Reprise)”
4 stars out of 5