It’s usually the mark of a genuinely great album when, after almost twenty listens in, you’re still discovering new shades and hidden nuances that previously, you didn’t realise were there. This is no truer than with ‘Blonde’, Frank Ocean’s long awaited and impossibly hyped follow up to 2012’s ‘channel ORANGE’. Lauded critically across the board upon release, the New Orleans singer produced a brew of rich, enchanting neo-soul, supplemented by vivid characterisation and undeniably compelling narratives. After four years and a series of delays he decided to drop two records in two days, which began with the spectral, avant-garde visual album titled ‘Endless’. In truth though, as much of an interesting project it was, it proved to be merely an appetiser for the main event.
It may not seem like it upon first listen, but ‘Blonde’ is a much more complex and ambitious outing than anything Ocean has released before. The arrangements are pared down but packed densely and structurally, feel like a natural progression from where the singer was at four years ago. One of the most distinct changes however is the heavy use of modulated vocal effects, which feature on almost every track, no more prominent than on the stunning and hypnotic opener ‘Nikes’. The helium pitched delivery is something of a shock the moment you hear it but it turns out to be an ideal match for the misty, synthetic wash which permeates throughout the track.
For an album containing seventeen songs, there’s an embarrassment of riches here. Simply put, these are some of the best things the R&B marvel has ever put his name to. Period. Despite lacking a true verse or conventional chorus, ‘White Ferrari’, with it’s multi layered, lo-fi instrumentation and gorgeous, crystalline melodies, may be his finest moment. Accompanied by glimmering synth notes to begin with, the track gradually builds towards something spectacularly heartbreaking. Both ‘Self Control’ and ‘Nights’ spring sudden tonal shifts halfway through and feature superb, instantly memorable codas that will quickly worm their way into your subconscious.
Amidst the experimentation with ambient textures it can be easy to forget for a moment just how much of a phenomenally gifted singer Ocean is. The sumptuous, Jamie xx produced ballad ‘Ivy’ and late night prayer ‘Solo’ are devastatingly minimal (like most of the record there isn’t any discernible percussive backing). However, this allows the 28 year old to showcase that terrific voice. “There’s a bull and a matador duelling in the sky / Inhale, in hell there’s heaven” he croons on the latter track. Thematically and lyrically, ‘Blonde’ expands upon Ocean’s obsession with celebrity culture, nostalgia, masculinity and sexuality. This time around everything is more internalised, more personal and emotionally raw as opposed to ‘Channel Orange’s’ more precise and theatrical storytelling.
Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay to this special record is how cohesive and finely tuned it is. The skits and shorter tracks for instance all feel like they have a designated purpose, whether it’s Andre 3000’s fierce machine gun rap on ‘Solo (Reprise)’ or the surprisingly poignant ‘Facebook Story’. Where an album such as Kanye West’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’ came across as rushed, unpolished and slightly hacked together, ‘Blonde’ on the other hand is the finished article. Only the brief ‘Close To You’ passes by without leaving any sort of lasting impression. Even the most abrasive and sonically jagged track, ‘Pretty Sweet’ - which is aided by Johnny Greenwood’s hulking strings - climaxes wonderfully with a pulsating drum section and reverb laden vocals.
The nine minute epic ‘Futura Free’ which closes proceedings is truly astonishing and genuinely moving. Split up into three parts, splashes of piano and stream of consciousness lyrics dissect Ocean’s career. It’s difficult to hear a line as simple as “Tyler slept on my sofa” or as anxiety ridden as “They wanna murder a nigga / Murder me like Selena” without them leaving a lump in your throat. Among all this, you can’t help but think of Kendrick Lamar and ‘Mortal Man’ which rounded off the irrepressible tour de force of 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. Like Lamar’s track, there is reference to Tupac Shakur, fame, permanence and interestingly, also finishes with an interview. Stylistically though, the two tracks feel more distinct and separate, with Ocean’s closer being less bleak and somewhat comforting.
The interview itself features Ocean’s brother Ryan at eleven and is at times, barely audible, constantly on the verge of being drowned out by the sound of passing traffic and hissing background noise. The questions are largely mundane (“What do you do?”, “What three superpowers do you wish you had?”) and the answers less profound. However, this deft personal touch, aided by a plaintive keyboard motif helps maintain the reassuring emotional depth. It’s a rather beautiful passage that perfectly encapsulates the already well established themes of youth and nostalgia.
More quintessential than any of his previous releases, ‘Blonde’ rewards repeated listens. It demands your attention, but more importantly, it deserves it too. This is the sound of an artist in complete control, full of confidence and dazzling flair. Four years ago Frank Ocean was responsible for a landmark R&B record. He may have accomplished this very same feat once again.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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