If you’ve been anywhere on the Internet (or existing anywhere in the world) within these past four weeks, you’ve heard of “Blonde,” Frank Ocean’s long-awaited sophomore album. Long-awaited is hardly an exaggeration in this case: the 28-year-old singer-songwriter released his first album, “Channel Orange,” almost four years ago, leaving a generation defined by its dynamic, eclectic sound, both honest and comforting, longing for more.
The journey to “Blonde” wasn’t just long: it was riddled with unconfirmed rumors, changing release dates and cheeky hints, reflecting the character of the mysterious, reclusive artist behind the project. The nods toward its release started in July when Ocean uploaded an image of a late library slip to his website, the last date stamped July 2016.
Fans took to the internet in a rage when July 31 came and went with no statement from the artist. However, on Aug 1, the site came alive with an ambiguous live stream of Ocean himself slowly and methodically constructing what was eventually revealed to be a staircase. The stream was an obvious metaphor for the message Ocean’s silence intended to communicate, one that flows through the entire project: creating art after such a powerful release like “Channel Orange” requires time and craft. It may be slow-moving and boring to watch, but, in the end, it will be worth the wait.
The project was finally released in three parts over the span of two days. It contained a magazine entitled “Boys Don’t Cry” that appeared in pop-up shops across the country the day after the visual album, “Endless,” a 45-minute smooth stream of Ocean’s music that is intimate and raw in nature, debuted. However, it lacks the refined sound of “Blonde,” the obvious centerpiece of the project.
Musically, the album is quite minimal, differing starkly from the often pop-like feel of “Channel Orang”. There are wide gaps in the album where there are no drums at all, only containing the sounds of electric keyboard, rock guitar, and Ocean’s own distorted vocals. The music itself evokes a sense of vulnerability and intimacy, almost as if the listener is sitting in Ocean’s quiet, dark attic while he croons into the otherwise empty space. The music is more mature in nature, as if Ocean has spent the past four years filtering through the overwhelming number of ideas that were evoked in his previous album. The standout track of the album, “Nights,” transforms from a seemingly standard beat into a plunging guitar solo, and ending in a rolling chorus of pure, light vocals that leave the listener totally marveled. However, some songs are so empty that they feel like background music. Songs like “Good Guy” seem like a quick afterthought, containing only a few chords and unclear vocals.
The simplicity of the music puts a glowing spotlight on one of the defining features of the album: the lyrics. “Blonde” reveals that Ocean has retained his talent to tell a story and describe complex emotions in lyrical form. The music overflows with a feeling of nostalgia. Lyrics like “I ain’t a kid no more, we’ll never be those kids again,” and “we’re getting older, baby” are just a few moments where Ocean reflects on the often painful past. The only major guest appearance on the album is an angry, jolting verse from Andre 3000, who looks back at his career in hip-hop and wonders if he was “working just way too hard?” in a time where rappers were getting famous over verses they didn’t write. However, Ocean often looks back with fondness, describing pool-side scenes and including old interviews with friends and his brother, Ryan, who was 11 at the time.
The album often wrestles with the heavy themes of love and loss, sometimes ending a line in a completely different tone than it started in. “I broke your heart last week,” he sings in “Ivy,” but remarks “you’ll probably feel better by the weekend,” leaving the listener reeling. In “White Ferrari,” he aches for a relationship long since ended, calling for feelings that can never be felt again in the same way. “Solo” explores the usage of drugs and sex as coping mechanisms for sorrow, and the regrettable consequences both can have. He mourns the death of Trayvon Martin, remarking “That n*gga look just like me,” exposing the listener to his own feelings of vulnerability.
Overall, “Blonde” does not disappoint. It is an intimate peek into one of the greatest musical minds of our time, a creator who has remained elusive in a time when everything is out in the public. His four years of careful reflection have resulted in a masterpiece that is both minimal in style and yet so complex that it commands to be listened to dozens of times before it can be understood. Despite the material it addresses, “Blonde” is not a call to action. It speaks of loneliness, and yet comforts. It is an album about Ocean himself finding peace in his own sorrow, and an assurance that all we can do the same.