2/4 Testudos from Anna Muckerman
For four years, we prayed and hoped that Father Frank would give Channel Orange a baby sister. We rested our hopes and dreams and college careers on the promise that, one day, new music would spring from Ocean into the streams of the internet. We watched our god build a staircase. We watched him walk up. We followed him back down. We wondered if he was mocking our loyalty.
And in a botched deliverance, Blonde was born. Incorrectly named and way too long at birth, it was clear we were not given what we wanted, but what Frank thought we needed.
Blonde’s first words, the idea that “all you want is Nikes,” toyed with our expectations of a brand-name album. The twangs of “Ivy’s” beach-y guitar and the tropical melody of “Pink + White” demanded us to pull out a chair and wait for the tide. Ocean’s lyrics are personal. He doesn’t use the sweeping storytelling of Channel Orange, or touch on its grand themes of injustice. Relationships, weed and the past are enough to sustain his lyricism. And there’s certainly no pressure to top his previous work – Blonde is take it or leave it.
But around “Skyline” the adolescent years take hold and the pimples start to show. Blonde’s sound changes as rap, acoustic and the occasional drum make the album’s concept hard to follow. The guiding voice of “Pyramids’ ” omnipresent narrator who could write himself into any story is nowhere to be found. Frank Ocean is raw and writes for himself, with the album as a byproduct of putting feelings into words.
As the mysterious and brilliant musician’s youngest creation, Blonde entered a world of unattainable expectations. And like the youth Ocean sings about, Blonde feels underdeveloped and slightly confused. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it, or maybe we’re just riding Frank Ocean’s wave.
4/4 Testudos from Cameron Neimand
If I’m having difficulty typing this, it’s because of the flurry of joyous, soul-searching tears that fell upon and short-circuited my keyboard somewhere between “Solo” and “Seigfried.” Despite Frank clearly wanting to infuriate the perennially uncompromising, authoritarian AP Style world order with the dual-spelling title, Blonde or Blond is the masterful standout that it needed to be.
Ocean brings a voice to the youth of now, following his mother’s disconnected yet caring anti-drug message on “Be Yourself” with an immediate request for a towel as Frank finds himself “dirty dancing by myself/ gone off tabs of that acid” on “Solo.” It’s the most poetic son to mother “F U” of all time, a self-aware testament to a generational gap of the culturally accepted. And isn’t it fucking awesome that Ocean, the most hyped thing in 2016 (right above cold-brew coffee and yes, even Kanye) is proudly toasting to “the gay bar you took me to” on “Good Guy,” or the fact that he no longer has intercourse with women (he says it less, uh, gracefully) but “your bitch my exception” on “Futura Free”?
Ocean is just a different type of star, and his mysterious existence and musical styling reflect this reality. On the epic “Seigfried,” Ocean declares himself “not brave” for being unable to settle into a “two kids and a swimming pool” lifestyle, a telling sign that being normal may be his biggest fear. While everyone and their momma in the world of music is ready to accept Lord Drake as king, Frank hands past-collaborator Andre 3000 a show-stealing, one minute and nineteen second verse on “Solo (Reprise)” to give everyone a reality check about their favorite artist’s shortcomings “After 20 years in/ I’m so naive I was under the im/pression that everyone wrote they own verses/ It’s coming back different and yeah that shit hurts me.” Political views aside, I’m willing to vote for whichever candidate in the upcoming presidential election requires every artist of every genre to give 3 stacks a minimum one minute feature on their album (just imagine a year in which Mr. Benjamin is featured on projects from both Andrea Bocelli and Lil Yachty).
Long story short, listen to Blonde because it really, truly, is fucking awesome.
3/4 Testudos from Josh Magness
I can still remember the first time I heard Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. A junior in high school, never before had an album gripped me like those 17 tracks did. The impeccable way each track seamlessly melded into the next, the effortless method in which Ocean poured his soul into his artistry through an intricate storyline, the subtle approach the reclusive R&B star took to hint at his sexuality in songs like “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump” — it was so fresh, so invigorating and so visionary.
Four years later, Channel Orange has only grown with me, continually offering new surprises with themes intertwined in its layered production and lyricism. So it’s no surprise that I frantically listened to Ocean’s Blonde minutes after its release. But now on my 10th listen of Ocean’s second studio album, I’m still not sure how to feel.
It could be that the pressure of my unreasonable expectations is weighing down an otherwise excellent album. Or it could be that I expected so much more after (somewhat patiently) biding my time for half a decade. In Blonde, Ocean seems so trapped in a foggy haze of self-realization and marijuana smoke that he departs from what made his prior tracks ripe for belting on car rides during a sunny day. He has always been adept at evoking a wellspring of emotion in his more melancholy songs — and maintains that talent in the sentimental wailings of “White Ferrari” (“I care for you still and I will forever/ That was my part of the deal, honest”) — but his music has also been able to fill me with an infectious joy, no matter how twisted the subject matter was. But Blonde is so weighed down in the pensive that it loses some of the buoyancy his older works exuded, even in Nostalgia, Ultra‘s “Swim Good” that is tinged with suicidal musings.
But Ocean hasn’t lost his prowess as a songwriter that can distill messages about contemporary life into a single album. His vocals distorted over hazy synths, Ocean croons about racial tensions in the opening track “Nikes” (“RIP Trayvon/ That n**** look just like me”); aided by atmospheric flutters of guitar, he grapples with aging in the dreamy “Skyline To” (“It beings to blur, we get older/ Summer’s not as long as it used to be”); and in an important step forward for a historically homophobic genre, the 28-year-old begins to brazenly proclaim his identity in “Good Guy” (“Here’s to the gay bar you took me to/ It’s when I realized you talk too much, more than I do”).
I still regard Blonde as a good album, but I’m still not sure if it’s great. Give me another 100 listens over the next year, however, and that all could change. One of Ocean’s greatest strengths over his first two albums, after all, was that they only grew better with age and endless replays. We’ll see if his latest work does the same.
3/4 Testudos from Molly Podlesny
Blonde is so important.
We can complain all we want that Frank Ocean is dropping the album four years after it was promised but 2016 needed an album like this.
Through his lyrics, Ocean speaks more candidly about his sexuality than ever before (“Nikes”). He uses spoken word recordings (Facebook Story) to illustrate the impact of social media on relationships. He even takes a moment to acknowledge police brutality, shouting out Trayvon Martin.
Frank Ocean has grown as a person. As an artist, however, he still has some work to do. I’m surprised as anyone that I’m saying this. I wanted this album to be an extension of Channel Orange, one of the best music releases of the last 10 years. It isn’t. On his long hiatus, Ocean changed — maybe too much.
In typical Frank fashion, some of the songs sound like they’re pieced together from bits of other songs, (think “Pyramids”) but it goes almost too far on Blonde.
Ocean employs, for lack of a better word, that voicemail gimmick that has become so popular in hip-hop and R&B, popularized by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Drake.
On Blonde it’s used too often. While “Facebook Story” provides social commentary, “Be Yourself,” a recording of Ocean’s mother’s speech to her son about drug and alcohol use seems to be going for irony but misses the mark and lands firmly in the realm of tiresome. “Futura Free” starts strong but ends in audio from an interview or old home video (this reviewer isn’t sure) and the audio is of such poor quality it’s jarring to the ear.
I did get some of the Frank Ocean I was waiting for. For lack of better adjectives, “Solo” is so, so good. It’s one of the more poppy songs on the album. It comes right after “Be Yourself,” and is about what happens if mother’s warnings go unheeded. The comedown is brutal, but this song is not. With minimal instrumentation, Ocean’s vocals can truly soar.
“Self Control” is another song that’s vocal-heavy, though Ocean sings over a guitar and the whole thing sounds like a late 2000s pop-punk ode. That’s not to say it isn’t great — the last minute of the 4:10 song is one of the better minutes of music I’ve heard.
The biblical references that kept popping up on Channel Orange return on Blonde, a tactic that seems to be en vogue in the age of Chance the Rapper. Lines like “You cut your hair but you used to live a blinded life,” a shoutout to the story of Samson and Delilah on “Self Control,” give the album an added complexity.
A lot of the album is minimal. At times this reviewer wondered if Ocean hadn’t been working on much music at all during the four-year absence and around the time he first put up his live stream he realized he better get something growing and threw some sounds together, knowing his voice would carry him through.
That’s a harsh assessment, though. Like I said before, this album needed to come out in 2016. Perhaps Ocean is like Batman. He doesn’t come out when we want him, only when we need him.
3.5/4 Testudos from Patrick Basler
For all their excellent songs, Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange were not remarkably personal albums. Star-making hits like “Novacane” and “Pyramids” crafted haunting narratives of notably unspecific origins, placing Frank Ocean in the role that began his career: songwriter. The words were beautiful, the stories engaging — but it’s telling that you could glean more about the man behind the music from his occasional Tumblr posts than from his songs.
Of course, four long years can change a lot, and in the time since Channel Orange was released, Frank Ocean silently made the transformation from Odd Future-affiliated crooner to reclusive R&B superstar, largely thanks to a degree of unhealthy public obsession. So when Ocean finally released his long, long, long-awaited sophomore album, Blonde, it seemed fitting that it stands as his most personal record yet, an answer to the millions of questions people have asked about him in the past four years— especially “where the fuck is the album, Frank?”.
On the slow burning, near-drumless Blonde, he turns the lens both inward and to the past, examining a version of himself from long before anyone knew or cared who he was. The gorgeous, ultra-nostalgic indie rock ballad “Ivy,” opens with the placid observation “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” and the album’s first half follows that musical and lyrical cue. Standout tracks like “Pink + White” and “Solo,” offer beautiful, dreamlike guitar and string arrangements and vaguely melancholic vignettes of waning summer days and adolescent love. They’re the type of stories Ocean flirted with on Channel Orange cuts like “Sweet Life,” but in the first person rather than the second.
Despite the record’s messy middle stretch, a collection of short sketches including a brilliant, jarringly out of place Andre 3000 verse and the album’s worst track, the ugly, pointless “Pretty Sweet,” Blonde recovers with a back end of slow, delicate songs, the best of which is the James Blake-featuring “White Ferrari.” And while “Seigfried” and “Godspeed” momentarily overstay their welcome, they’re more than made up for by “Futura Free,” which features a lengthy, intensely personal, freeform rap verse over simple, plodding piano. “Now I’m making 400, 600, 800k momma / To stand on my feet momma / Play these songs, it’s therapy momma, they paying me momma / I should be paying them,” he raps in a lethargic voice that’s paradoxically full of passion, maybe even pain. It’s the least polished song on the album, but it’s confessional nature makes it an oddly lovely track that looks into the naked soul of an artist long-regarded as an enigma.
Blonde‘s sparseness and honesty make it Frank Ocean’s most surefooted, confident artistic statement to date. While it lacks the immediacy and pop shine of Channel Orange, his ability to create a touching, enjoyable pop album with so few elements makes Blonde one of the most impressive, remarkable albums in recent memory, and well worth the wait.