Frankly I’m glad I reserved my judgement for Blonde until a month after it debuted; on my first several listens I was profoundly let down, not just by the real lack of memorable tunes or lyrics, but by its sound as well. I was a big fan of Ocean’s Channel Orange in 2012, and while my opinions on it have shifted since I’ve grown up a bit, it’s still a memorable, unique, quiet little masterpiece that’ll endure beyond your average pop album. Frank himself brings both a sincere, respectful tone and a gorgeous, moving voice to his projects that bespeaks of a man wrought with passion for his art but insecurity too; real generation-defining stuff. But in terms of its production, Channel Orange shone because it had a rich command of its minimal style: though the songs were made up of only a few elements each, their tone, mix, and sound were so lush, spacious, and colorful that Frank found room to float atop them. Twinkling little keyboards, live drums (and some drum machines), thrumming bass, radiant brass, even Frank’s own voice, all layered beautifully. The beats blended both the synthesized and live, coalescing in a simple but elegant blend of contemporary pop, r&b, funk, and hip-hop.
Now, Blonde works far more with live instrumentation than Orange did, but that’s a moot point: the people who go nuts over these arrangements probably shrugged off last year’s genuine classic in Donnie Trumpet’s Surf without a second thought (those heathens.) Though the production techniques here feel similar to Orange’s, it’s only superficial; these arrangements, sparse as they often are, aren’t nearly as charming as anything like “Thinkin Bout You” or “Sweet Life.” Thus, the minimal arrangements, because they’re not as spacious and aural as the ones on Orange, require more musically entertaining and engaging ideas (AKA melody, harmony, good chord patterns, etc.) to sustain interest. And so we arrive to the nitty-gritty of it all: that the tunes aren’t there. Not enough, that is – I’d be lying if I said there was nothing of merit here – but I’m perfectly happy enough to give this a B+ and keep the stuff I enjoyed. Which, granted, is a decent amount: “Ivy” feels closer to a rock song than anything else on here, working surprisingly well; “Pink + White” from a musical standpoint sounds terrific, especially the jangly acoustic’s entrance at 1:13 (a lovely walk down a suburban street on a sunny day); “Self Control’s” got a breezy guitar riff; “Nights” smoothly streams through several beat changes and sections; “Seigfried’s” slippery, blurry guitar and the way it gradually moves into a nocturnal ballad; and “Godspeed,” which everybody seems to like, is alright. If I have to give credit where credit is due, I’d give it to these arrangements. Though these melodies don’t terribly impress me or stick with me, the way a lot of these tracks build is often impressive, changing naturally and shifting into something new entirely. And a lot of these songs flow and feel like rock songs as opposed to r&b ones – maybe it’s the guitars. There’s a bit of bite to ’em. I respect that.
My favorite song here is “Seigfried,” and I adore it. Musically, it’s a nighttime drive through a blindingly bright city at two AM, with its opening section threatening to explode into life at multiple points before dissolving, melody growing more distant, strings rising and screeching, and suddenly it all drops out, just Frank speaking solemnly over the album’s best melody… almost five minutes of music that pass by in mere moments. It’s an arrangement that works in the album’s aesthetic world of rock-tinged r&b/pop: similarly spacey to Orange, but more distant, more wide open and panoramic. Orange sounded like bedroom music; this is outdoorsy and free-willed. Lyrically, it details the struggles of a twenty-something, living on his own, seeking answers and avoiding complete disillusionment. “I’d rather live outside,” “This is not my life / This is just a fond farewell to a friend,” basically the entire spoken word section… hard-hitting shit. Good shit.
Winding down, as far as stuff I don’t like (proper tracks, at least), “Solo” is pretty boring musically, no melody to speak of, with a decent vocal performance from Frank, and its reprise is useless. “Pretty Sweet” doesn’t get interesting till that breakbeat kicks in, and before that it’s unbearable. “Futura Free” is self-indulgent crap… not a lot of bad, thankfully. Did I miss anything? I don’t think so. Oh, and the skits and interludes on Frank Ocean albums are always pointless. The ones here serve even less of a purpose than the ones on Channel Orange did, somehow, and are preachy to boot. Fun. Also the vocal pitching here is worse even than on a Twenty One Pilots album. OK it isn’t nearly, but “Nikes” still fucking sucks. Chipmunk vocals need not exist outside The College Dropout. Fuck “Nikes.”
I have a feeling that if Blonde was Frank’s debut and he released Orange after, not many people’d be impressed with this. But we all want to love Frank Ocean – he’s one of the only people working in the mainstream who gets it, you know? Millennial struggles and all; his music has a sense of very attached loneliness, like you’re just biding your time to start living again, for real, once everything’s settled. He, like Kendrick, like Chance, even like Kanye, represent the sort of “lost-in-the-world” generation we’re all stuck in: people trying to make their way, optimistically and un-cynically, through our own lives. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a bit like this.
Oh well. Looking forward to the next full-length, Mr. Ocean! And have you considered maybe making another mixtape between now and then? That’d be cool. Peace.