By: John Gaudes
Every month, John Gaudes (@johngaudes) writes about a new release from the previous month and spins a mix based on the artist’s influences and peers. We call it the SP Mix.
It doesn’t feel like four years, but that’s how long it’s been since Frank Ocean released channel ORANGE, his debut long play and a system shock to R&B. Since that release, with its heartbreak and playfulness, Ocean’s story has been more about his disappearance. Since that release, we really haven’t heard from him at all.
Now, we have Endless and Blonde. After two years of detail teases and missed release dates, Ocean has satisfied his frustrated fanbase with not one, but two albums. The first, Endless, is a concentrated extension of his final tease -– a livestream of Ocean building a spiral staircase, with new songs echoing in a warehouse as he worked quietly. When he finished the staircase, Ocean climbed the stairs. Endless was available moments later.
The visual album, as it’s been reported since, relieved him of his Def Jam contract. Two days later, he self-released Blonde, and appropriately so. The follow-up to channel ORANGE is an all-time symbol of introspection, a proper reflection of self we so rarely get from today’s egos.
Blonde is an extension of Ocean’s disappearance. Over the last four years, he went full Jai Paul, appearing every so often with a collaborator in a studio picture, but never in the public eye. His features were sparing -– a writing credit on James Blake’s The Colour in Everything and a bleary feature on Kanye West’s “Wolves” were pretty much everything we had to work off this year. This album, though, doesn’t bend to the will of anyone’s except Ocean’s. Even with the overwhelming list of people who worked on this album, every second is manicured to Ocean’s sensibilities.
This is a very different album from channel ORANGE, but it does continue a few precedents. On his first album, Ocean’s vocal melodies would deliberately bend into avant-garde. On songs like “Pilot Jones,” he pivoted between rap, spoken word and breathy falsetto, seemingly unconcerned with whittling melody out of his soul music. It was Stevie Wonder through the lens of Thom Yorke, an impressionistic brand of R&B that pushed the genre’s borders out.
Blonde goes all-in on this impressionistic idea of melody; through multiple listens, there are very few earworm moments. Songs often end differently from where they began, and Ocean is constantly teasing his own voice, whether it’s through chipmunk effects on “Nikes” or heavy reverb on “White Ferrari.” There’s no “Thinkin’ Bout You”-style pop song here, and it’s very likely none of these tracks will get a whiff of crossover play. What the listener is left to grab on to is the beauty of these tracks, and the palpable loneliness created by the album’s lyrics and mood.
Those lyrics, for the most part, offer a glimpse into a specific person or moment from Ocean’s youth. While he paints pictures both good and bad, all of them come from a centre of a man, alone. Regardless of where the listener is in their lives, it’s a relatable feeling of melancholy and introversion; the feeling of 3 a.m. nostalgia –- when you’re hopelessly awake and your mind slips elsewhere, your body warm with sleep.
The lucid dreams come alive after listening to Blonde on repeat. You start to feel the heat off the summer pavement on “Pink + White,” as Beyonce and Frank Ocean’s voices meld to remember the carefree moments of stealing cigarettes, listening to Michael Jackson. You start to feel the exhaustion on “Nights,” as Ocean expresses jade for all his former vices (“rolling marijuana, that’s a cheap vacation”). This skepticism is also front and centre on “Be Yourself,” as Ocean’s mother warns him against the use of weed. Across the album, messages like this are clear -– there is only temporary escape from your own feelings. In the end, our memories are always there.
Only at the end of the album do we get any cohesion on Ocean’s outlook, any sort of looking forward after all the rear view mirror talk. It’s here, on “Seigfried”, “Godspeed” and “Futura Free” that the album hits its emotional apex. On “Seigfried,” over shoegaze guitar, Ocean’s lyrics slip into poetry as he contemplates becoming homeless, starting a family, anything to escape his own mind. The bleakness then slips into warm remembrance on “Godspeed,” as Ocean forgives himself for his teenage years, yelping “I will always love you, how I do” to his mistake-ridden younger self. Blonde concludes on “Futura Free,” where a free-wheeling, curtain-pulling verse gives way to a recording of Ocean and his childhood friends, talking about their future under heavy tape noise. The nod to childhood is a bowtie on the album; the kids are carefree and unburdened, unlike much of what’s expressed over the previous hour.
In this self-awareness, Blonde really caters to nobody in particular. Ocean’s coming out in 2012 has made him a pioneer of sorts, but he has no interest in fitting Blonde to that stigma. He also largely stays away from serious conversation on race, deviating himself after a line of racially powered releases from Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, and Dev Hynes. There are common ties, including feeling adrift as a black man, but Ocean doesn’t speak to any larger evils, any circumstances outside his own control.
This is simply Frank Ocean’s art in a raw form, and the combination of forlorn lyrics and gorgeous, painstaking soundscapes combine for music as late night revelry –- a solo trip, remembering everything and everyone you’ve ever known.
As an experiential album on loneliness, a bleary embrace of nostalgia, ultra, Blonde elevates Ocean into the stratosphere of artists –- one worthy of his platform, and one capable of disappearing to reach his limitless potential.
Miles Davis – Generique
D’Angelo and the Vanguard – The Charade
Frank Ocean – Pink + White
Radiohead – In Limbo
Blood Orange – Chance
Blood Orange – Best to You
Kendrick Lamar – Complexion (A Zulu Love) [feat. Rapsody]
Burial – In McDonalds
Frank Ocean – Seigfried
Bjork – Unravel