Aug 23, 2016

Review: Frank Ocean - "Blonde"

There are few artists currently working that are as exciting as Frank Ocean. True, every Beyonce release (especially Lemonade) comes with acclaim and curious dissection, but Ocean is a bit of a reclusive genius whose very appearance comes as some quality endorsement. Having made it big four years ago with "Channel Orange," it's been strange to feel his absence on the music scene in that time. With success around the album, including several Grammy's, the notion of what next seemed to be an unanswerable question as each potential release date kept proving to be a false start. Then this past Saturday, it happened. On the backs of a visual album called Endless, he released his sophomore studio album "Blonde." Having been quiet for some time now, it's interesting to see what he has to say, and it is honestly more evidence of his brilliance.
If one felt Ocean's absence even a month ago, they're likely met with an overwhelming presence this time around. With a roll-out campaign that is one of the rare marketing feats in music worth mentioning, he unveils "Blonde": itself made more cryptic by the fact that the album cover says BLOND, and the original title ("Boys Don't Cry") is actually a magazine that was released at pop-up stores. He is a man that likes to keep listeners guessing, especially with cryptic dates online leading many to believe it's release to be anytime over the past four months. Now that it's here randomly, it's easy to apply this strategy to the music itself. It doesn't feel rushed, yet has an immediate grasp that is mysterious. While he has a knack for being candid, it's hard to read Ocean's deeper intents, especially as an openly gay artist who rarely uses specific language despite being a romantic at heart.
Still, there is growth in him as an artist over the four years. The opening song "Nikes" starts with high pitched vocals before fading into Ocean's own song that features a variety of topics - most notably how he feels that Trayvon Martin looks like him. Despite being at times lustful, Ocean's repertoire does get personal in a political manner as he also discusses Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed his home. Even if he's still keen on late nights of hanging out and getting high, there's an urgency to be active in other ways. It's the words of a growing artist reflecting his inner dialogue perfectly, even discussing what sounds like personal relationships and strange stories about not smoking and Facebook relationships. Whether or not these actually have deeper text is up for debate. However, it's still fascinating to wonder why such tertiary songs made the cut (though nobody could argue with more Andre 3000 in "Solo Reprise" - one of the few artists more reclusive than Ocean).
Most of all, this is R&B with a passion and heart that doesn't often fit into familiar structure. The music runs the gamut of styles, including heavy reverb, and mostly is used to emphasize the lyrics that read as poetry put to music. While this may sound corny, it actually comes across as powerful and at times blissful. Listeners are left in a melancholy state from Ocean exploring universal themes in romance and youth that effect the modern 20-something. It's quite possible that the soundtrack will be autobiographical to some despite being sometimes profane and conflicting in mood. Like all great art, it has its shares of flaws. Like all great art, it doesn't matter one iota because it purely reflects the passionate soul of the artist in question.
The one caveat is that it's not an immediate album and the hooks are less defined than "Channel Orange." With that said, Ocean's challenging work almost feels worthwhile for the sheer fact that it may be another four years before we get another album. This is an album that needs to soak in and be properly assessed in a few months, when the lyrics finally send shivers down your spine and the words haunt your long and lonely nights. Ocean strives for the long run, and he is likely to succeed yet again. It may be less immediate than his previous work, but he is a maturing artist whose immediacy is less clear than it was as a young up and coming star once named among Time Magazine's 100 most influential people. What's more impressive is that despite being openly gay, it doesn't hold him like an astigmatism. Instead, he is defiantly doing what he wants, and it's up to us to deal with it. 
"Blonde" is probably the most anticipated album of the year for most despite not even knowing if Ocean would break his silence. To say the least, the album was worth the wait and the chance to find challenging content in music is sublime - especially in a summer that is grounded in bad movies, political controversy, and simple dread. Ocean feels ya. It's almost like he gave this antidote for those needing to chill out and just relax for an hour. That's perfectly fine. Thankfully, his album delivers something worthy of talking about. Maybe it won't have its greatest impact now, but it's important to start finding it now. Otherwise, the summer just got a little cooler and maybe the rest of the year won't be so bad now. Thanks again, buddy.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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