by EJ Coleman
There are four stages to waiting for a Frank Ocean album.
First, excitement: you’ve just listened to Channel Orange, there’s a rumor the next one is coming out soon, maybe even an actual date to look forward to. You start getting excited and listen to “Thinkin Bout You” on repeat, wondering how the new stuff will sound and how it will have evolved, keeping up to date with all the Frank Ocean news Twitters.
Second, brief disillusionment; you realize, in the middle of your Orange re-listen, that you’ve been played before, and it’s incredibly likely that you will be again. You mention offhand to someone that there might be a new album coming out soon and they ask, “Hasn’t it been a while?” and you have no response. This often involves a lot of quiet contemplation and watching his SNL performance again to reorient yourself.
The third stage is blind hope, when the news articles start rolling out reminding you that there have been release dates and announcements in the past that have come and gone and it’s still been four years, but you think to yourself, Maybe this time… Maybe this is the one…
Usually stage four is disappointment (when the date passes and there’s no news and Frank disappears for another eight months before the cycle starts again, leaving you feeling foolish for starting to believe again) but not this time. As of August 20, 2016, there are not one, not two, not even three, but four official Frank Ocean albums (if you count the mixtape and visual album).
So what is stage five? So far, it feels like being blindsided with relief and excitement. It’s similar to when you’re walking up a long flight of stairs and you aren’t really paying attention because you’re headed for the fifteenth floor and last you checked, you were on level three, but then you go to take another step and it turns out you’re at the top. There is no next step, and as your foot falls through empty space, you’re still thinking two steps ahead and have to slow down to adjust.
Endless (the visual album of Frank building a staircase) and blond (the album formerly known as Boys Don’t Cry… probably…) are a one-two punch just when I thought the fight was over, and they definitely knocked me out for a while there. Now that we’re all collectively conscious again, blond steps forward to accept the awe and gratitude we’ve been saving up over the years of wait.
The only remaining issue is whether or not it’s worth it, and I would argue that it is.
Full disclosure: I am unable to not love anything that has Beyonce’s voice in it. That is a given. But blond is more than just amazing guests, or the drama of its release, or the Channel Orange sequel—blond is a good album.
The immersive R&B experience that was Channel Orange has always been a high bar to reach, something people have speculated is the reason blond took so long to arrive. Personally, I’ve always been afraid Orange was be a once-in-a-lifetime album and that anything that tried to build on it would only fail expectations.
Thank God it isn’t, as blond takes everything good about Orange and strips it down to its barest components before rebuilding them into another masterpiece.
blond is minimalism in a beautiful way. Even the tracks that feature superstars like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar use them sparingly; on “Pink + White”, Beyonce chimes in to harmonize (in a beautiful, ethereal, preternatural way) on the ending notes, and Kendrick’s few lines in “Skyline To” are just him shouting a word or two in the background. Most of the album is produced by Ocean himself, although Pharrell, Mike Dean, who has worked with everyone from Angel Haze to Beyonce herself, and Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, join him, among others. Two of the greatest songs on the album credit Elliott Smith (for a borrowed “A Fond Farewell” lyric in “Seigfried“) and the Beatles (for a sample in the same song and the brief reference to “Here, There, and Everywhere” that appears in “White Ferrari“), and “Close to You” is basically a rework and cover of the Stevie Wonder song.
With all the credited influences, not to mention those unsaid, the fear that the noise will drown out Ocean’s own work grows. But above all, it is a Frank Ocean album. It is Frank Ocean lyrics and Frank Ocean tenor and Frank Ocean production and Frank Ocean excellence. The guests are there to emphasize what Ocean has created, not drown out his words.
That’s not to say the album is without flaw; some of the interludes are extraneous, such as French musician and DJ SebastiAn‘s “Facebook Story” about an old breakup, and “Pretty Sweet”, while still being pretty sweet, is wildly discordant with the rest of the album. None of the songs are suited for radio play, which (depending on who you ask) could be a good thing, but I know I’ll miss the feeling of flipping between stations when suddenly “Ivy” is sliding out of the speakers.
Overall, though, the collective consciousness of the album is powerful. blond is like an art gallery in the least pretentious way possible. The walls are white and the room is empty other than the art, drawing your attention closer to what more than who is there. There is no such thing as an overproduced song on this album, and the songs themselves are full of space and sparsity. Songs like “Seigfried”, “White Ferrari”, and the end of “Self Control” are out-of-body experiences, especially “White Ferrari” in all its Bon Iver-y glory. The lyrics do the same, even under the expected scrutiny for a well-known master craftsman. Ocean’s lyrics, which have long been his forte, manage to be both bare and lush. The sparsity of the music lends phrases like “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension / You say we’re small and not worth the mention” and “Wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice / And our time was right” even more weight.
Most importantly, this album is neither a carbon copy of the last nor a complete rejection of it. The story started by Channel Orange continues in blond. The connecting threads of youth, nostalgia, and sexuality connect the two albums, although they are more mature and openly addressed now. In his four years of hiatus, Frank Ocean has grown, and thankfully it shows in his music. The albums are different, of course, but it’s easy to tell they’re related, like when you see a picture of yourself as a kid and can see both how different you look now and how much you look the same. “Godspeed”, one of the stand outs of the album that shares its name with a screenplay Ocean published in the accompanying “Boys Don’t Cry” magazine, shows this perfectly. Opening like the sad lull of an eighties movie when the conflict drives the main characters apart, the song ends in bittersweet gospel as it promises, “You look down on where you came from sometimes / But you’ll have this place to call home, always” and “Wishing you godspeed, glory / There will be mountains you won’t move / Still I’ll always be there for you.”