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Review: Frank Ocean drops second album, Blonde


Frank Ocean’s Blonde is great– on its own terms. Channel Orange, the debut studio album from Los Angeles R&B artist Frank Ocean, is probably the most consistently critically acclaimed musical project of the last half-decade.

It’s an album that combines accessibility with experimentation, sunny pop with nocturnal soul, and humor with heartbreak.

It’s an album that I count among my favorites ever recorded, an album that sits nicely alongside the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours as masterpieces in mainstream pop. The follow-up to Channel Orange was destined to be a groundbreaking release, so I don’t think anyone exactly expected what we got in Blonde, Ocean’s sophomore full-length.

After the visual album Endless, which consisted of B-sides and sessions from Blonde’s recording (then referred to as Boys Don’t Cry), Ocean finally did it: he dropped his album. And Blonde is nothing if not surprising, although in hindsight, it shouldn’t be.

The most immediate thing the listener realizes about Blonde is, ironically, its lack of immediacy. There are no great pop songs like “Thinkin Bout You” or “Lost,” nor are there any immediately devastating stories like “Bad Religion” or “Forrest Gump.”

Ocean is the most prominent queer voice in modern urban music, but he doesn’t let that fact dominate his music – he’ll never write anything along the lines of Macklemore’s “Same Love” or Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”

Instead, his ambiguous sexuality is just a portion of a whole man, and it was always going to be that way with someone who has this much raw talent.

Rather than focus on social issues or create by-the-book ballads, Ocean lets us into his life, complete with all the trappings of his newfound fame. Of course, Frank still has that knack for casually devastating lines and melodies that stick with listeners for weeks.

Album highlight “Ivy” starts with “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you
loved me.” It sounds like the intro to a warm, sweet love song, but it’s an unrequited love that used to exist in bounds.

“I could hate you now / It’s quite alright to hate me now,” Ocean croons, but he knows that he’s just being overly dramatic.

Later, “Godspeed” relieves a long, tense intro with the most heart-wrenching lyric on the entire record: “I will always love you!”

It’s a truly stunning moment, backed only by gospel-tinged organ chords. It’s about the unfathomably difficult task of relinquishing a love that won’t work out: “I let go of my claim on you, it’s a free world / But you’ll always have this place to call home.”

Similarly, “Self Control” might be my favorite song on the entire record. It’s about a feeling that all of us experience but is rarely explored– the feeling of wanting someone so badly but being unable to do anything about it.

The chipmunk vocals on the song’s hook only add to the dejection that Ocean feels: “Keep a place for me / I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.”

The music of Blonde is subdued and focused. Ocean never adds anything unnecessary to a track and many are only backed by some subtle guitar.

But like usual, it’s Ocean’s voice that is the highlight of the album’s music. The deft, relaxed vocals of “Solo,” the multi-tracked layering of “White Ferrari,” and so much more – it simply feels great to be able to hear his voice for the first time in years.

Blonde starts with “Nikes,” a ridiculous stream of consciousness that features pitched-up chipmunk vocals that somehow keep all of Ocean’s soul. He rhymes “Carmelo” with “Othello,” then drops one of the boldest lyrics of his career:

“Pour up for A$AP / R.I.P. Pimp C / R.I.P. Trayvon / that n**** looked just like me.”

Ocean doesn’t seem comfortable in the spotlight, which would explain his seclusion. This fear is explored even further on the album’s closer, which alludes to the murder of Mexican pop star Selena and people’s newfound appreciation of Ocean: “Remember when I had that Lexus? / No, our friendship don’t go back that far.”

Those, along with the incredible solo Andre 3000 track “Solo (Reprise),” are the most
energized moments on Blonde; in fact, the rest of the album is relatively sleepy, especially compared to Channel Orange.

There will be people who listen once and never return to it, simply because there aren’t moments here that have quite the impact that Channel Orange had. But to compare Blonde to his previous effort is a disservice to Ocean and his music.

He was never going to make another Channel Orange, and that’s fine, because although it’s completely different, Blonde might be just as much of a classic.

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