Take the technicolor dreams of Los Angeles, pair it with the fading memories of a childhood in New Orleans, blend it with drug-fueled wanderings in desolate cityscapes, sharpen it with deep reflection on memory, love and fame and you’ll have a decent, but not altogether satisfactory, view of Frank Ocean’s genre-defying “Blond.” After four years of delays and cryptic messages scattered across Tumblr, Frank Ocean has released his follow-up to 2012’s “Channel ORANGE.” “Blond” gives us an impressionistic insight into Ocean’s life and musical vision that adds far more mystique to his character than it reveals. With its gyrating sense of form, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and poignant wisdom on longing and loss, we find that the album confronts us with a surrealistic portrait of ourselves, our relationships and our own dark pasts.
Ocean’s highly anticipated new project unfolded in a mysterious barrage of work over a span of forty-eight hours — enough time for the masses to hop on the bandwagon and solidify his place at the top of Apple Music. It began with a visual album, “Endless,” which features a black and white film reel of Ocean building a spiral staircase, over-top a lucid free-flowing soundtrack similar in sound and structure to “Blond.” For the second phase, he dropped a lengthy catalogue called “Boys Don’t Cry,” available only in pop-up stores in four cities. Within “Boys Don’t Cry,” he includes photos of luxury cars and race tracks, personal essays and even a poem written by Kanye West. This led up to the release of “Blond,” an experimental masterwork, which became the third largest debut of 2016.
“Blond” is composed with a listless sense of poetic and rhythmic beauty. Ocean employs progressive reverb technology, stylistic voice filter techniques and atmospheric soundscapes integrated with organic instrumentation. He has destroyed his classification as merely a “rap” or R&B artist. “Blond” features a number of collaborators — including Johnny Greenwood, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé — and employs the influence of Hip-Hop, R&B, Soul, Gospel and even light tremors of folk-rock. These creative integrations result in musicality that is as complex and rich as the album’s themes and lyricism.
The format of the album is a slipstream of fluctuating songs, musical snapshots and surreal interludes. With hooks that lead nowhere and verses that run in circles, each track develops like a hypnotic journey through a poetic funhouse that bends the conventions of songwriting at each turn. All the while, Ocean handles his lyrics with elegance. He gives us characters and situations that are simple yet profound and emotionally visceral in their rendering. In “Pink + White,” he calls forth images of Hurricane Katrina. “In the wake of a hurricane/ Dark skin of a summer shade/ Nose dive in the flood lines/ Tall tower of milk crates.” In “Ivy,” he flexes his sensitivity to fading love: “We had time to kill back then/ You ain’t a kid no more/ We’ll never be those kids again.” His sense of poetics gives “Blond” color and dimension. In essence, the album is Ocean’s artistic testament to memory, a stained-glass window of moments shattered by depression and alienation, then reassembled into a psychedelic self-image that is luminous and beautiful.
Some “original” Frank Ocean fans are happy and also annoyed about his recent commercial successes. Similar feelings have been provoked by the recent emergence of Chance the Rapper as a prominent figure in mainstream rap. However, both Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper are important to the future of commercial rap music. New artists like these two are bringing craftsmanship back into the mainstream, just as musicians including Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar have done and continue to do. Hopefully we are moving into a period of higher expectations as to what makes an album great, which will push artists — aided with new technology and added control over their work — to produce unique and exciting music.