Frank Ocean’s Blonde: Transcending Time and Genre

Featured image courtesy of the artist

It could be argued that Frank Ocean is as well known for his tardiness as he is for his talent. If anything, it’s a testament to his abilities that he was able to keep, let alone grow, his fanbase after two years of missed deadlines and false release dates (full disclosure: I was one more no-show away from throwing out my channel ORANGE copy and forgetting about Ocean entirely). Thankfully, Ocean finally broke his silence on August 19, first teasing with his livestream-turned-visual album Endless before releasing his long awaited sophomore album, Blonde. Much like the man behind the music, Blonde is an enigmatic work that takes influence from everything and nothing.

With all its lush sounds and memorable hooks, Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE was conventional pop/R&B at it’s finest. Listeners who expect Blonde to be a continuation of that may find themselves disappointed. The structure and familiarity that bred channel ORANGE hits like “Thinkin Bout You” and “Forrest Gump” are nowhere to be found on Blonde: the album is passive and genreless. More than half of Blonde’s songs don’t even have a beat, and even the wide array of guests artists come and go with no celebration. Outside of Andre 3000’s obvious contribution to “Solo (Reprise)”, major collaborators such as Kendrick Lamar (one of the greatest rappers of our time, whose role on “Skyline To” is delegated to occasionally saying “smoke!” at the end of Ocean’s verses) and Beyonce (one of the biggest pop stars on planet Earth, who is barely audible at the end of “Pink + White”, a track that sounds way too similar to her 2013 collaboration with Ocean) are tough to notice even after multiple listens. While most artists would do everything they can to highlight such big names on their tracks, Ocean sees their contributions as simply another instrument in his project.

And Blonde truly is Ocean’s project. Gone are the third-party perspectives found in “Pyramids” and “Super Rich Kids” on Ocean’s debut; on Blonde, Ocean is singing about his experiences and doesn’t try to translate directly to the listener. Ocean writes about the small yet profound moments detailed on Blonde in a specific enough way that only Ocean knows the true backstory, but also in a way that ultimately feels universal. This balance is especially strong on songs like “Solo” and the gorgeous “Ivy”- the stories and references laid out by Ocean on these tracks are hidden by a veil of complexity, but it’s almost impossible not to relate in some way to the crippling loneliness of “Solo”, or Ocean’s cry of “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me” on “Ivy”.

In many ways, Ocean’s early mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra acts as a better precursor to Blonde than channel ORANGE does. Nostalgia, Ultra saw Ocean reinterpreting songs such as Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing”, MGMT’s “Electric Feel”, and most notably The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, while also taking influence from sources like Radiohead and Stanley Kubrick. Blonde’s influences, though more subtle, seem to be taken from whatever Ocean got his hands on as well. Ocean’s official list of Blonde contributors includes many disparate sources such as David Bowie, The Beatles, Elliott Smith, Kanye West, and Pharrell Williams (in addition to the previously mentioned Lamar and Beyonce), but the part these artists played in actually contributing to Blonde is more or less unclear. Ocean absorbs all these influences to create a genreless sound on Blonde, a sound that is at times unnerving and new but one that also feels like it’s been around for years.

When listening to Blonde the first couple times through, I couldn’t help but compare it to “A Real Hero” by College & Electric Youth (of the Drive soundtrack fame), with it’s minimalist instrumentation and its familiarity. Though that song was only recorded in 2011, it sounds like it could fit into any era within the last forty years of modern music. Blonde is a whole album that evokes this same quality. It may not be as easy of a listen as channel ORANGE, but Blonde manages to transcend time and genre to prove itself as Ocean’s best work to date.

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