This was the single most stressful album release I have ever experienced. After the absurd Life of Pablo rollout earlier this year, I didn’t think anything could get any torturous. Of course, after viewing an hours-long stream of the construction of a staircase with nothing to go off of but baseless speculation, I was dead wrong. Supposed and reported release dates came and went with nothing to show for ’em. It seemed like the follow up to Channel ORANGE (One of the best albums of the decade so far IMO) would just never show up. Then, out of nowhere, Frank drops a visual album, a new record, a video, and a magazine, all within 48 hours. We eatin. Finally. After so long.
Right off the bat though, it becomes glaringly apparent that anybody who may be looking for a Channel ORANGE Pt. 2 is going to be sorely disappointed. This is a brand new area for Frank, and the music talent that he’s known for is still here, but in a much more reserved way. The production is deliciously, silky smooth, but very minimal, and more free flowing than CO. Upon first listen, it can seem like a disappointment. But this is an album that takes a few listens to burn in, and, though it may not have any juggernauts quite the same level as “Thinking Bout You,” “Pyramids,” or “Lost,” there’s plenty to love, and it provides further testaments to Frank’s talents, and fearlessness when it comes to experimentation.
“Nikes,” the opener and lead single, provides some of the slickest production of the whole record. The strangeness is immediately apparent, with Frank’s vocals opening up through some sort of pitched distortion. It’s an interesting choice that shows up at several points in the record, in tracks like “Ivy,” and “Self Control” as well. It’s not a negative aspect overall, but I can see how it can be jarring to some listeners. Personally, I think it adds to the overall dream-like sound of the album. The vocals, along with the dissonant and minimalist production, create a subdued and woozy, but an engaging atmosphere. There are some fantastic poppy hooks a la CO scattered throughout (Such as in stunning standout tracks like “Solo” and “Pink + White” among a couple others), but the album feels more like one, long continuous piece than a combination of hits.
Along with “Solo,” which explores the concept of loneliness and is probably the catchiest track and “Pink + White” which is a gorgeous, sunny bass and piano-laced balled, tracks like “White Ferrari” and “Godspeed” absolutely floor with their simple beauty, while “Nights” with its almost industrial, guitar-tinged production and the interlude “Be Yourself” which is simply a voicemail from Frank’s mother warning against the dangers of drugs, may raise eyebrows. As much as I adore Andre 3000, and it was a delight seeing him in Solo (reprise), the contrast of the song to the rest of the album is jarring. “Facebook Story” and “Close to You,” a couple more interludes, also sort of take me out of it a bit. Not that they don’t fit thematically in the album, but they’re not tracks that stand out to me at all in the grand scheme.
Frank manages to dive deeper thematically and lyrically with this album. Often his voice is the only thing carrying a melody in a track. It’s as talented as ever (which ads further curiosity to the voice distorters). But Frank’s further exploration of his inner self, his sexuality, and relationships with others, especially on “White Ferrari” (it really is so good), “Ivy” and “Pink + White” which really showcase his lyrical talents. Even the title is curious. Is it blonde or blond? Frank isn’t sure either it seems.
Even though you may have to do a bit of work for it, and it may take a while to realize, there’s really a lot of beauty to be found in Blonde. It’s not quite Channel ORANGE, but that shouldn’t be expected. While some artists can be expected to make the same record over and over, that’s clearly not the case with Frank Ocean. There’s a lot of risks taken here, and a lot of them really pay off in what feels like a natural evolution of sound. It’s a challenging record, but one absolutely worth undertaking.