Frank Ocean: Blonde review – a baffling and brilliant five-star triumph

With its enigmatic beauty, intoxicating depth and intense emotion, the follow-up to Channel Orange is one of the most intriguing and contrary records ever made

When Frank Ocean broke his four-year musical silence last week to release Endless – a 45-minute visual album that saw him building a spiral staircase to a soundtrack of disjointed, avant-soul – many listeners, myself included, made an assumption. It seemed logical that Endless was the sound of Ocean unburdening himself of his more outre leanings before the release of his second studio album, a more focused commercial project that would cement the reputation he earned after 2012’s Channel Orange as one of pop’s most vital voices.

With its falsetto Isley Brothers covers, ambient undercurrent and Wolfgang Tillmans electroclash numbers, Endless was intriguing. But it was more a series of curveballs than an album. It felt safe to say that, whatever it was people were expecting from Ocean’s second studio effort, techno songs featuring a Samsung Galaxy phone press release being read out in a German accent were not high on the list.

Less than 48 hours after Endless dropped, Ocean’s long-delayed second studio album finally did arrive, in the form of Blonde. And guess what? That wasn’t what people were expecting either. It came with sleeve artwork on which the title is spelled differently (Blond), a physical edition with a slightly altered tracklist and, if you ventured to one of the four pop-up shops in London, Chicago, LA and New York on the night of its release, a glossy magazine called Boys Don’t Cry (Blonde’s working title) that featured, among other things, a poem by Kanye West about a McDonald’s cheeseburger forming a band with a milkshake. If you felt disoriented before you’d even pressed play, then that wasn’t the half of it.

Whatever you may think about Blonde, it’s undeniably one of the most baffling, contrary and intriguing records put out by a major pop star – not just this year, but any year. Identifiable bangers of the kind Ocean has rattled off either for others or himself – most consistently on his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia Ultra – are conspicuous by their absence. The tone is muted and introspective, full of spectral guitar and lacking not just hefty beats but any kind of percussion at all. (More than half of the 17 tracks here are without drums.) The lyrics are elliptical and fragmented, touching on adolescence and consumerism, identity and eroticism, yet lacking the sturdy narratives found on, say, Pyramids or Swim Good.

‘I ain’t a kid no more’ … Frank Ocean.
‘I ain’t a kid no more’ … Frank Ocean. Photograph: Claudio Bresciani/Scanpix

Blonde boasts collaborators of a variety and star quality unparallelled by anything else you might hear in 2016 – Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Amber Coffman and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. Yet aside from André 3000’s centre-stage turn on Solo (Reprise), you’d barely know most of them were here. Instead they’re deployed in a manner akin to session musicians or low-key production hands: Beyoncé’s role on Pink + White is reduced to outro backing vocals, which demonstrates admirable chutzpah if nothing else.

On first listen, Blonde appears to be a collection of loose sketches waiting to be hammered into shape by a no-nonsense producer. Good Guy consists of nothing but wobbly organ chords played underneath hurried memories of a hookup in a New York gay bar – the whole thing collapses after barely a minute. White Ferrari wanders aimlessly across a line cribbed from the Beatles’ Here, There and Everywhere before a passage of semi-singing: Ocean appears to have stopped trying altogether. Those of a devilish mindset might be tempted to conclude that after finally finishing his much-hyped masterpiece, Ocean mistakenly deleted it from his laptop the night before launch, and had to frantically cobble together what he could from memory at 3am using an acoustic guitar and FX pedal.

But such cynicism would be misplaced. Blonde is the sound of an artist cashing the critical cheques he’s accrued with Channel Orange and taking the rare opportunity to create a record that answers only to its maker’s own vision. Where Stevie Wonder was his debut’s key influence, Blonde seems to have more in common with records such as Big Star’s Third or Radiohead’s Kid A, where texture and experimentation are given free rein. Realign your expectations, and what gradually emerges is a record of enigmatic beauty, intoxicating depth and intense emotion.

Blonde’s mood is druggy and dislocated – there are frequent references to weed and psychedelics – but the songwriting is unconventional rather than unfinished. The shapeshifting structure of Nights or the minimalist guitar chug of Ivy – a song on which the distinction between verse and chorus is almost imperceptible – wrongfoot you at first, yet reward patience through their subtle hooks. Along with releases such as Rihanna’s Anti or Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Blonde feels like a torching of the rules regarding what a black artist is expected to do.

You begin to realise why the numerous A-list guests here remain camouflaged – nobody is deemed important enough to intrude on a sound that is Ocean’s alone. The lo-fi psychedelia of Connan Mockasin is perhaps the closest sonic reference point, while there are certainly nods to James Blake’s sadboy electronica, Bon Iver’s isolationist folk and Drake’s soulful self-absorption. Yet with its Prince-like infusion of gospel and soul influences, Blonde doesn’t sound all that much like any of these artists.

It’s no easier to untangle lyrically, an initial blur of Creole slang and Shakespearean references that eventually coalesce into hazy portraits of Ocean’s youth, before fame and adulthood brought unseen pressures. “We didn’t give a fuck back then,” he reminisces on Ivy. “I ain’t a kid no more, we’ll never be those kids again.”

Snapshots of elusive love and fleeting lust are scattered throughout, shorn of context and often told first in the present then the past tense: a glimpse of their promise before the reality of their disappointment hits. This fragmented style belies an obsession with both memory and mortality, and conjures an effect more in keeping with a novel – at times, it reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad – than a pop record.

The aesthetic Ocean pursues on Blonde doesn’t allow for big, bold pronouncements on race or sexuality. Save for a moving shout-out over Nikes’ lolloping beat (“RIP Trayvon, that nigga looked just like me”), Ocean sidesteps the racial politics that fuelled To Pimp a Butterfly and Lemonade (although you could argue that the record makes a statement simply by breaking free of genre and attempting to usurp canonical works by white artists). Ocean’s sexuality, which he has previously explored on tracks such as Bad Religion, is alluded to, but in nuanced ways: the stunning ballad Self Control opens with, “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight”. There’s no sentimental Same Love message to be found here, and elsewhere similar recollections are not gender-specific. By resisting the obvious route, the effect becomes more powerful – much like the moving Tumblr post Ocean wrote before the release of Channel Orange, the object of Ocean’s affections is not important; how strongly he feels is.

You could easily see Blonde as full of contradictions, and this would be yet another – how can such a purportedly personal album be so lacking in detail or revelation? But these mixed signals are not the result of slapdashery. What originally appear to be Blonde’s flaws – its loose ends and ambiguities – end up as its strengths. Past and present, black and white, blonde and blond: in subsuming them all, this record serves as a subtle and moving rumination on the passage of time and the blurring of identity, with its protagonist gloriously unwilling to be defined as one thing or the other. Like life itself, nothing is crystal clear – other than the fact you should never make assumptions about Frank Ocean.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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