Every generation needs its enigmas.
Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange was an epochal album, a seminal studio debut that cemented Ocean as one of the definitive musical voices of 2010s pop. In its wake, a new wave of “alt-R&B” acts took over popular culture, as everyone from Miguel to Jhene Aiko to The Weeknd became household names over the past four years, as Ocean fans patiently waited for a follow-up. He never disappeared from anyone’s radar, but fans were all but browbeating the semi-reclusive star to release new music. After a promised release date of July 2015 proved fruitless, the public began speculating whether or not Frank Ocean had joined the likes of Lauryn Hill and Jay Electronica: a uniquely gifted talent who seemed too happy to leave the public wanting more without ever fully building on their early career promise.
So when it was announced that Ocean would be releasing something in July, there was understandable skepticism. That prospective—but never confirmed—date failed to yield any new Ocean album, but the whispers continued. There was something new coming, and fans rejoiced when Ocean released his visual album Endless, a somber project that featured reflective, pensive music. But there was more coming.
Two days later, Ocean released his official third studio album, Blonde— a progressive and nuanced look at his inner turmoil. Building on the atmosphere of Endless, the music is downbeat but not depressing, and these ruminations on isolation, fame, and heartbreak offer more questions than answers. Musically, however, Ocean has returned with a potent collection of sonic ideas. Somewhere between Bilal and Thom Yorke, halfway to mournful yet somehow triumphant, Blonde is a compelling album from start to finish.
This isn’t an album that’s hook-driven, and you can’t really tell what would be a monster radio hit on the level of “Thinking About You”; this album’s greatest strength is its cohesiveness. The Bon Iver-assisted “White Ferrari” recalls the most melodic ’80s new wave singles, with Ocean’s wistful lyrics resting on a blanket of synths that give way to simple acoustic guitar strumming and ethereal harmonizing. It’s a highlight on an album that has no shortage of high points. And this is an album that operates as one experience. In an era when albums are afterthoughts, Ocean’s Blonde is almost impossible to appreciate without hearing the full album as one, extended musical journey.
“Nikes” is a pointed album opener, where Frank opines “RIP Pimp C (rest in peace), RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me,” and “these bitches want Nikes,” before proclaiming, “I may be younger but I’ll look after you / We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you / When you’re not here I’ll save some for you / I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you.”
It’s an engrossing listen, one that veers toward the sublime on tracks like “Self Control” and “Skyline To.” The greatest achievement here is the album’s scope, and the successful way Ocean balances a consistent mood with a still-sprawling sense of musicality. This album never becomes monotonous. And Ocean has an impressive roster of guests. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar textures are evident all over the album. Andre 3000’s welcome appearances are expertly quirky, the latest in a long list of consistently unique guest spots. He’s a shot of energy on the piano-driven “Solo,” but doesn’t upset the sonic mood that Ocean sets throughout Blonde.
Gospel star Kim Burrell gives weight to “Godspeed,” a song that Ocean has acknowledged as highly personal.
“I wrote a story in the middle—it’s called ‘Godspeed,’” he wrote on Tumblr. “It’s basically a reimagined part of my boyhood. Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though... It’s still all good.”
The grooving bounce of “Nights” is one of the album’s most infectious moments, with gloriously downbeat guitars running against one of Ocean’s affecting melodies. “Seigfried” is a dark and beautiful ballad, as Ocean sings about his pride and foolishness for not settling for “two kids and a swimming pool” over an elegant and atmospheric guitar backdrop that is like slow dancing on the moon at midnight. The song borrows the hook from Elliott Smith’s “A Fond Farewell” and dates at least as far back as 2013—as does “Ivy,” evidence that he’s been reworking and retooling Blonde for years; a meticulously sculpted musical statement.
In the zine that accompanied the album, Ocean thanked several artists as “album contributors,” including David Bowie, Mike Dean, Beyoncé, Brian Eno, Kendrick Lamar, The Beatles, Andre 3000, and Pharrell. It’s an indication of both how wide-ranging he’d like this work to be considered, and a creative standard he seems to want to be held to. But beyond name-checking legends, Ocean has successfully realized his own ambitious vision. A lot has changed since 2012, and Ocean’s boldness could have easily made for an indulgent and scattershot record.
But his reach never exceeded his creative grasp—even with a four-year gestation period.