Tom Conway- Indy Staff Writer
I exit the library and head south. It’s early evening. In the fresh darkness, lightning ripples across a facade of distant clouds. With this stunning view, I cue up Blonde, the newest release from R&B auteur Frank Ocean. “Nikes,” begins and immediately fills the gaps between what I hear, what I’m doing, and what I see. The rolling bass mimics the thunder, the mellow trap beat matches my footsteps, the ethereal synthesizers capture the essence of the lightning. The simple joy of a perfectly curated walk home sets in.
To fully address every strength of Blonde would test your patience and mine, so I’ll keep this as short and sweet as possible. On his second full-length album, Frank Ocean delivers the triumphant return that so many of his listeners hoped for. It lacks the immediate accessibility of 2012’s Grammy-winning Channel Orange, but that doesn’t detract from its depth. Both musically and lyrically, Blonde is a rousing success, albeit a humble and introspective one. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Blonde is how well it transcends both expectation and genre.
The four year gap between Channel Orange and Blonde allowed hype and expectations to grow to a seemingly insurmountable level. Plenty of Frank Ocean fans (myself included) began to expect a game-changing album with bells and whistles. I thought I wanted the kind of album that would spawn several radio hits, replicating the success of “Thinkin Bout You” off of Channel Orange. Instead, Frank Ocean provides us with a true album; a cohesive work of art that rewards patient listeners. Expectations be damned.
There are no notable hooks on Blonde. Song structures are less rigid here than what most listeners have come to expect from a mainstream R&B artist. Despite there being several meandering and initially unpredictable songs (“White Ferrari,” and “Seigfried” follow this format best), the album stays memorable. I’ve caught myself humming individual lines throughout the day, then listening to the half the album just to hear the one line that weaseled its way into my head. In the process I pick up another line, and the cycle repeats. Over the course of the entire hourlong album, this aspect of Blonde allows different listeners to connect with it in a more a personal and intimate way than albums with less attention to detail.
Whether or not Frank Ocean intended it, it feels as if every single sound on Blonde was arranged painstakingly to blend and flow naturally. From the way the vocals, guitar, and synth bass compliment one another during the chorus on “Self Control,” to the euphoric musical interlude in the middle of “Skyline To,” to the lush production on “Pink + White,” to the gorgeous electric guitar on “Ivy,” moments of subtle sonic beauty occur frequently on Blonde. These moments of beauty replace catchy radio hooks, thereby challenging whether or not an album even needs hooks to succeed. Equally important, the beauty of these songs is derived not from how well they adhere to the typical conventions of popular music today, but from how well they function within the system of musical logic that Blonde establishes. This logic is based on subtlety and effective pacing.
There is a noticeable lack of drums (both electronic and acoustic) and bass on Blonde. This sharply contradicts the trends of popular music in 2016. A listen to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo or Drake’s Views provides insight into how drums and heavy bass are typically used. Frank Ocean turns this expectation on its head and completely omits drums from “Ivy” and several other tracks. Bass is used very sparingly, for maximum effect, on “Self Control” and “Nights,” to name a couple examples. Here, once again, Frank Ocean is challenging what listeners come to expect when they hear music released in 2016. A recent (July, 2012) study of recorded music since 1955 published in Scientific Reports found that the intrinsic volume of recordings has been increasing. Ocean seems to be actively fighting that trend on Blonde.
In one hour, with 17 diverse songs, Frank Ocean proves not only that he can create an album that transcends expectations, but that he is not shackled to any one genre. Instead, he dabbles in trap-pop on “Nikes,” Connan Mockasin-esque indie rock on “Ivy,” guitar-driven soul on “Self Control,” psychedelic ambient on “Siegfried,” and gospel on “Godspeed,” to name a few. He also repeatedly uses vocal modulation in a way that never becomes gimmicky. In doing so, he establishes his own chameleonic style that adapts to the specific intent of each song. The comfort Frank Ocean exhibits while singing over a variety of musical styles in turn makes the songs comforting, especially with repeated listens.
Blonde is a quietly self-assured album. Frank Ocean conveys confidence not by making extravagant musical statements or by singing boastful lyrics, but by making sonically diverse songs that play well together. Frank Ocean’s versatility and raw talent as a vocalist and songwriter allows him to transcend expectations and genre to make what I consider to be an album of “pure music,” which will retain its excellence long after the musical trends of 2016 fade away. Overall, then, Blonde stands as one of the best albums of 2016. A must-hear. (4.5/5)
I’m a super-senior social studies education major at ISU, and I handle most of the music articles in the Indy. I also have a dusty, rarely updated music blog, The Healthy Alternative (www.wordpress.com/dahealthyalternative), which you can go visit to make me feel better about myself. I track the viewer count religiously. Other than school and music, I enjoy watching people parallel park, perfectly fried falafel, and deep existential uncertainty!