When you sit down to review a project like R&B singer Frank Ocean’s third studio album Blonde (or Blond, if you have the magazine version), your first instinct is to treat it like you would any other assignment. You ask questions like:
- What was the artist aiming to achieve with this project?
- How did he/she do it?
- Was it clear, concise, effective?
You approach it in a vacuum. You try to be objective.But that’s not how things really get made or consumed. Your perspective on anything is always under the influence of where you are, how you feel, who you’re with, etc. That’s why Ocean groomed as close to a perfect world as he could, visual accompaniment and all, to take with you as you float through the 17 tracks. Over 4 years after his acclaimed debut album Channel Orange, an inescapable cloud of hype and comically exaggerated frustration had shrouded Ocean.
With expectations at an all-time high, it was shaping up to be a pivotal moment for the 28-year old singer who got his start ghostwriting pop songs and hanging out with his Odd Future collaborators.
As more artists rush themselves to stay relevant and cash in on hype, Ocean slowed his tempo. He recorded 2 studio albums over the course of 4 years and waited to release them within days of each other. He traveled the world to curate a 300+ page magazine that looks and feels like a coffee table art collection. He (reportedly) pushed back an already-delayed album release 2 more weeks after a New York Times article spoiled the surprise. He deviated from the alternating live-band/MPC-constructed drum patterns on his debut effort for a more ambient, focused sound.
The result of all this care? A project whose very existence serves as a victory for Ocean and other young artists who aspire to create something immersive and lasting; a 17-track, radio-unfriendly, magazine-accompanied, independently released ambient Pop album that is now set to debut at #1 on Billboard. Blond is proof that artists don’t have to play by “best industry practices” to get and keep people’s attention.
But beyond the context surrounding this enormous achievement, beyond the visuals accompaniments, French fry poems, and neon hairdos, the music itself is an intricately woven effort that plays out more like a movie score than an album. Though there are moments that test even a dedicated listener’s attention span, such as skits with his mother, brother and friends, Ocean makes up for them with his sheer talent and use of tension throughout.
Blonde exudes a type of artistic confidence only possible in someone who has been in the game for a very long time. Shifting seamlessly between vocal registers and styles, Ocean glosses himself generously over every moment of this 61-minute project, unafraid to sing from the chest when necessary (i.e. “I’m not brave!” in “Seigried” or the end of “Ivy”).
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Blonde and Ocean as a songwriter is his ability to phrase simple ideas in compelling, memorable ways. What this album lacks in catchy hooks, it makes up for with home-run lines that act as the theses for their respective songs, such as “We breathin’ pheromones, Amber Rose// Sippin’ pink-gold lemonades,” “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me,” and “I ain't making minimum wage momma// I'm on momma.”
Ocean developed and released Blonde to be consumed as a single entity. He released it with a magazine packed with content just to ensure that you would sit down and take your time with it. Its success will hinge upon the context in which you hear it. This is a strange analogy, but think of it like an album full of strip-club hits. Just like that artist might be asking you to step out of your house and into the club, Ocean is asking you to step out of your world for 61 minutes and into an imaginary, atmospheric world of his curation with soft guitar licks, gospel-inspired chords and lots and lots of emotion.