Aside from releasing probably the best 90’s style R&B album for the last decade, Frank Ocean’s single biggest feature was his full-fledged earnest confessional style in the form of a sequence of Tumblr posts and mixtapes. The way he spoke his mind was so revelatory and sincere that one could not help but fall for his charm. Indeed, his silky, gliding falsettos were a big help, too. However, the perfect admixture of his intricately wrought psychological landscape and his sturdy innocence was what made Frank Ocean an indisputable standout from the rest of the vocal-racing R&B pack. Frank had one more strange aspect to himself as well: his inscrutable wisdom. From his open-hearted Twitter bios (“I don’t know anything & neither do you”) to witty, but heart-felt questions, he had this natural, unwavering natural philosopher in himself posing questions which are hard to answer, but when they are answered, they induce self-peace and inner serenity.
Channel Orange was a tangible experience. Through Frank’s guidance, we trawled through L.A.’s ancient Egypt-aspired strip clubs (“Pyramids”), his room where his friend was doing not all besides smoking and effortlessly gliding via natural herbs (“Pilot Jones”), his confiding séances to a random taxi driver, while learning about an Abrahamic religion and providing personal, wise take on it (“Bad Religion”). In a sense, we knew where we were, even though all of it was a little more believable than a dream. Some of it were, of course, the critically positive and elaborate mind of Frank’s taking us by the mind and emotion, maiming us viscerally, at the same time exposing us to the impeccable travelogue of his pure mind. He was our Virgil, but not to a tour of hell and purgatory, but to his dreamily woven mind. It was shocking to see wisdom to that extent in someone who was that young. Most of us just wanted to take him by his cheeks, go up to the mouth hole and ask: “How could you be the way you are?”
But some of it was due to sheer beauty of his music. Expansive, overarching, omniscient, omnipresent, modest, sincere, earnest, unwavering, undulating, dewy, confessional, personal… every positive adjective somehow found its way into describing Channel Orange—and deservedly so. I was captivated by Frank probably later than anyone, but it was timely. If it was layered with uncountably many layers of beauty, then my desire was not to get tipsy by this beauty, but to be guided to the bottom of the bottle. That was eventually what happened. Now I understand what was going with Channel Orange—the method it was operating on was not to provide a whiff of smooth substance of beats, lush orchestrations, undeniably beautiful falsettos; it was to bombard in an idiosyncratically reclusive way.
The opulent texture, heartfelt spirit and idiosyncratic structure of Channel Orange propelled it to the top of the lists, but maybe more importantly to the intimately and intricately wrought soul rooms of his fans. If the media hyped Frank once, the fans hyped it a hundred times. It was not a contrived relationship, either. Frank just spoke his mind and his mind was adopted and endorsed sincerely by his fans. Years passed by, carrying Frank’s sophomore album more and more into aether hype. Some even claimed that it did not exist; some claimed that it did exist and it was legendary. For me, it did not matter until I heard it in structure and sound. The pre-release chicanery of Apple almost turned it into a sour experience, but eventually Endless dropped (now come to think of it, it was not solely because of Apple, the experience was downing; it was due to purportedly reliable source, New York Times).
It was a full-blown stream-of-consciousness, reversely constructive pieces of sounds, hinting at minimal cohesion. However, even under that entangled collection, we could hear Frank flicker (“Rushes”, “Deathwish (ASR)”). At last, Blonde dropped. The anticipation aggregated toward something like Channel Orange #2, since the source of our anticipation did not emerge out of thin air, but reshaped, remolded, no subtractions from and minimal additions to Channel Orange. Now it seems all the better that these expectations were doomed from the beginning. Channel Orange was a flooding experience, it was a full immersion into something bigger than life, yet belonging to one person’s mind. It irrigated the deserts of Arizona and the arid peripheries of audial veins. From one track to another, no expectation is dismayed, no stake is lowered.
Blonde is more recluse, more personal, yet still bolder. It seems, instead of building on the already-there, Frank dismantled everything and started anew, instead of exporting onto a bigger studio, he receded back into his room, pushed half of the instruments aside and set his personality and emotions at the center of his room. If what he did during Channel Orange release was from the heart, Blonde picks that up and does not leave it just as an extra-musical statement; compliments it as an album. Blonde is a transformative album not just for Frank, but for how music is done.
First, I was totally set aback due to the meager, Spartan production and held-beck engineering of the album. This is what I call “post-Channel Orange” effect. I waited to be flooded with ever-more expansive music, but Blonde is not that; this is not its ethos, nor its telos. For me, prima facie disillusionment with the album came from this expectation, mainly. I believe that I was not alone in feeling this. How this feels is best understood in comparison: take “Thinking about You” with its strings, its ornate structure, its silky-smooth vocal delivery and compare it with “Ivy” with no drums (electronic or otherwise), minimal finger-picking guitar and shy, frail vocals. First, I thought this was a discrepancy in beauty; but it turned out to be a discrepancy in intent and scope.
“Nikes” is the first single/video released from Blonde. The video was a pleasure-and-pain fest, Frank burning all over in the end and bodies intermingling in a subtle NSFW fashion. The song itself is one of the closest in Blonde to Frank’s early stuff. A woozy, slow-mid beat enmeshing with an ethereal, wavy sequence of synth oscillation. Frank’s vocals are engineered to the point of non-recognition with helium-like, modulated effect. It feels brittle, transient and ethereal. However, it has a transitory bleakness to it, which is better grasped with the video.
The other track which is similar to Channel Orange sound is “Nights”. It is structured around an electric guitar and basic beat. Frank’s delivery is as seamless as it gets in this track. The real surprise comes at the end, when musings of an impromptu-sounding electric guitar cut into a killer, pounding beat patch and soft keyboard sequence. Frank’s voice mellows down, too. “Nights”, “Pink + White” and “Nikes” are the songs for those who would like to hark back to early Frank Ocean material.
Overt use of electric guitar is probably the biggest surprise for me, but it is not the only novelty in town. The conveyance of emotion and ideas seem to have gone through a major transformation as well. Frank is subtler, more ruminative and it almost sounds like he wanted to tone down the rest of the instruments to make space for his pondering ritual. “Ivy” is the best display of his transformation. One can imagine him sitting at the edge of his bed, clutching his guitar and soulfully breathing life into “Ivy”, but the album is full of these moments—“Ivy” is just the best epitomization of this image throughout the album. There are also brief interlude moments (some of which are streetwise stay-sober ads, some of them are André 3000 killing it over a discursive variety of instrumentation from piano to chip tunes) just like Channel Orange.
Overall, Blonde is an impeccable album which does not show its beauty and brilliance at first listen. It may be even the most-slowly-unfurling album I have ever listened to, but when it blossoms into your ears (and it will), you feel like you have found a life-long friend who is there, when you are feeling bad, angry, shaky and wronged. Blonde is a testament to Frank’s resilience to releasing anything bad and a groundbreaking statement of his perfectionism, his atemporal artistic brilliance and his consistency.