Needless to say, this record took a long time getting here. Four years in the making, Frank Ocean has dominated a good place in music news and rumored viral posts for what seems like forever now. He still does. When he said he might never follow-up the triumph that was Channel Orange in an interview with The Guardian back in December 2012, the world stopped for some. Rumors went on for about three years thereafter, “is he working on a new record? Is he still alive?”
Then, in April 2015, he posted a picture of a new album and accompanying publication titled Boys Don’t Cry, with the caption: “I got two versions,” and we cried Christmas-morning-like tears of joy. This cycle of crying over excitement and then disappointment went on for the next year and a half, as the record didn’t come out that July, or every other subsequent rumored “drop.”
Artists like Malay, producer of Channel Orange, told Pitchfork that: “when he’s [Frank Ocean] ready, the world is gonna get it.” James Blake told Rolling Stone that it was more “mature” and “better” than his previous work, while Chance the Rapper told Complex that it was “amazing” and Frank Ocean was “away making a masterpiece.” In July, 2016, a year after the initial intended release date, the never-updated website of boysdontcry.co posted a picture of what appeared to be a library card with dates stamped all over it. Those dates, mostly already passed, were meaningless–even those that were at the time still yet to come. Frank Ocean had become a contradiction of a reclusive artist who still teased and hyped a record that seemingly was never going to come out, let alone maybe not exist. After he released a live stream earlier this month of workbenches and a giant speaker set-up that never played any music while he toiled away building god knows what, in my frustration, I told myself that I didn’t even want a new Frank Ocean album anymore.
It didn’t help when The New York Times reported an Apple Music supported release date that didn’t pan out to be true, and especially since Frank hadn’t even appeared on the live stream in awhile. My patience was about to run dry right when it was released. Not it per say, but something. Frank appeared on the live stream with a spiral staircase, walked up and down, flicked the lights on and off, and then released a “visual album” entitled Endless. A time-lapse of Frank Ocean and some pals building the staircase from the live stream, Endless also featured new music that played out of the previously dormant background speakers. While some wept for joy once again, screaming “it’s finally here!,” I listened to the project thoroughly disappointed.
Frank Ocean wrote an amazing record with Channel Orange, showcasing his vocal, songwriting, and musically innovative prowess. When he had us watch him build a staircase while he vamped over sad, ambient music for about forty-five minutes, I had had enough of the two year long drag through the Frank Ocean swamp. This is what he had been working on? Sure, the actual album appeared a couple of days later re-titled as Blonde, or Blond, depending on if you got the record from Apple Music or from his accompanying Boys Don’t Cry pop-up publication shop, but let’s not forget Endless, a “soundtrack” that SPIN writer Dan Weiss said even “Drake probably got through one-third of and asked how much is left.” He sang his heart out to us on Channel Orange, but on Endless, he whimpered scattered thoughts and sporadically vague ideas like a man choked by the pressure of just releasing something already. As overly disappointing, indulgent, egocentric, and pretentious as Endless is, however, Blonde is quite the opposite.
Sure, it opens with a pitched-up and chipmunked Frank Ocean for the first half of “Nikes,” but it has a kind of “World Domination” by Joey Bada$$ playfulness to it, especially in the lyrical content. He’s not saying anything deep here that needs his regular voice, until it heavenly arrives, but it is an odd way to start the album. I kind of would rather the beat play out for like a minute and a half with no vocals until he comes in for real. It’s interesting that the pop-up version of the album doesn’t even include “Nikes,” starting the record off with “Pretty Sweet.” I mean, the drum part of “Pretty Sweet” is indeed, pretty sweet, but it all feels like an extremely long interlude, not a great opener either. Especially with how abruptly and violently the song starts, I don’t even know how I feel about it on the album let alone an opener, largely so because it follows “Solo (Reprise)” with André 3000.
Speaking of “Solo (Reprise),” I wish I didn’t have to wait for every Frank Ocean rollout to hear an André 3000 feature, but André straight up bodies “Solo (Reprise),” sounding like he was cut off by the end, as if he could have went on for another whole round of bars. I wouldn’t have complained. I mean, André, maybe the only artist more of a recluse than Frank, not only demonstrates on this track that he’s still at a level to compete with every rapper still in the game after over 20 years, but that he’s also disappointed in the amount of ghostwriters and those “not deserving” their rap hits while he’s worked so hard his entire career. I mean, this is coming from the guy who would’ve been the king of rap back in 1995 if the East vs. West Coast rap war didn’t alienate the South. “The South got something to say!” André screamed after getting “booed” from winning Best New Artist at the 1995 Source Awards. He shows up here on Blonde, 21 years later, to prove his dominance yet again, and all he needed was a track just over a minute long.
“Solo (Reprise)” isn’t a track that necessarily fits into Blonde, but I would never take it away. I mean, I didn’t get to the rest of the album for about fifteen minutes as I just continually replayed that verse over and over again. But the track uses André to further emphasize Frank’s dedication to the art and that it all comes from within him. He wants to show that these thoughts and songs are honest and from the heart, and that art like this can’t be rushed. “We’ll let you guys prophesize, we gon’ see the future first,” he says on the opener “Nikes,” but Blonde isn’t anything sonically demanding or completely innovative as Channel Orange was, and if anything it fits into a kind of genre that has been becoming more and more popular among huge pop/R&B or “PBR&B” artists. Sure, Frank still does it incredibly well, but there are tracks on Blonde like “Ivy” that are still very reminiscent of works like Rihanna’s ANTI. I would even go as far as to say that “Nights” is Frank’s “I can be a better Drake” track just like how Kanye’s verse was a better Drake on the original “Pop Style” that was excluded from VIEWS. Blonde is a better VIEWS.
But Frank Ocean still displays a dominance over this sound on tracks like “Godspeed,” “Solo,” “Self Control,” and “White Ferrari,” the latter of which actually going a bit towards the sound of Bon Iver near the end. Those looking for a Channel Orange sequel will find solace in “Pink + White,” featuring background vocals from Beyoncé, but I really like the new sound direction Frank takes on this record. It’s interesting that he expanded his sound into something more “Pilot Jones” or “Forrest Gump” than “Sweet Life” or “Monks.”
Not all of Blonde is amazing, I can deal without yet another record with a voicemail skit (especially one as lame as this) and some Endless-like vague tracks towards the second half of the record, but overall Frank shows a more vulnerable side to his songwriting–one that still holds a light, humorous approach that existed on Channel Orange as well.
“I’m just a guy, not a god,” he says on the last track, “Futura Free.” He shows how childish everyone was waiting for this record like it was their life juice, explaining that “you could change this track now/could’ve changed this bitch a long time ago,” and that he “ain’t on no schedule.” And sure, I played into the “is Frank even alive?” game. I had my fair share of disappointed fan tweets, but I get it now. Yeah, art can’t be rushed. It was disappointing that we heard over and over again that it was going to be released and it wasn’t, but most of it was pure speculation anyway. He never told us himself. It’s all besides the point now, as the record exists and we have it, but it just goes to say that we all need some more respect for the artist here.
If Frank showed us anything on Blonde, it’s his honesty and vulnerability. “I used to fuck with all of ’em/yeah I ain’t got bitches no more,” someone says on the “Good Guy” interlude, “but now I don’t care about bitches like that my nigga, that shit Jasmine fucking wrecked my heart, I don’t even know how to even feel about it.” Even with personal records like Lemonade and A Moon Shaped Pool released this year, I find it funny that I feel closest to, and now understand, maybe the most reclusive artist in all of pop music. For all the mystery and enigma that has trailed Frank Ocean for the past four years, Blonde turns it all around, where he finally shares everything, and I’m glad we weren’t assholes enough about it all that he felt like he could still confide in us.