Frank Ocean – Blonde

Endless.


10

Peter Schutz

Blonde ends at the beginning. The latter half of closer ‘Futura Free’ is devoted to a chopped-up interview of Ocean’s little brother and his friends when they were 11 years old, where the interviewer asks deceptively easy questions like, “What was your first memory?,” and, “How long is a lightyear?”. We don’t get to hear their answers (although a full transcript is apparently printed in the accompanying magazine, Boys Don’t Cry) except for distorted mumbles and half-phrases, lending the outro an effusive air. In fact many of the tracks, without percussive beats for an anchor, possess qualities of ambient music. It’s up to Frank’s vocal performances and naked songwriting to drag these songs back down to earth.

Frank Ocean’s other new album, Endless, also ends at the beginning – as the title suggests. Cut down from 140 hours of raw footage, the 45 minute finished product is a visual album consisting of multiple takes of Ocean building a staircase combined together to look like enslaved clones. It doesn’t capture your attention, it doesn’t even try to; while watching, your mind might drift off to consider the theme he is trying to convey. Is the takeaway that Ocean, a gay man, is participating in the very machismo, hands-on field that is woodworking? Is staircase-constructing, like he suggests about his car obsession in his Tumblr liner notes, a “subconscious straight boy fantasy”? Perhaps the whole exercise was a lesson on the virtue of patience: instead of releasing an album, like the whole internet was clamouring for him to do, he was slowly building a set of stairs to nowhere. And then finally, after the so-called “endless” four year wait, he releases an album called Endless. How long is a lightyear? Twitter commentators might say it is the length of time it takes Frank to drop an album. For his part, Ocean remarks cheekily on ‘Skyline To’ that “that’s a pretty fucking fast year flew by…

It’s appropriate that both these albums have a circular quality. The idea of distorting and trying to master time is a major theme on Blonde. On multiple occasions, Ocean begs for immortality, and at one point cries, “I wanna see nirvana but don’t wanna die.” The contradiction is pretty apt for an artist who is simultaneously in and out of the public eye. Frank Ocean doesn’t indulge his fans with constant Twitter and Instagram affirmation, and his private life is so unknown that until he mentioned the fact on his Tumblr, we didn’t know that he had moved to London. His enigmatic persona exists on the opposite end of the spectrum from an artist like Kanye West, whose constant media presence can detract from his actual music. On the other hand, his artistic work has been under constant scrutiny for the past four years. No other mainstream pop musician has had so much pressure upon a sophomore album release after such a short period of time (From ‘Futura Free’: “They wanna murder a nigga, murder me like Selena”). The Avalanches, up until only a few months ago, had not released an album in four times as many years. But in Frank’s universe, where he lives “so the last night feels like a past life,” the time between his debut, channel ORANGE, and now probably feels like an instant.

Blonde is a record that believes firmly in the healing nature of time. While usually soul-baringly empathetic in his songwriting, Ocean now assures his lover on ‘Ivy’ that, “I broke your heart last week, you’ll probably feel better by the weekend.” In regards to his jet-setting, partying lifestyle, he numbly concludes that “every night fucks every day up, every day patches the night up.” The album is a journey through time, a summary of Ocean’s maturation over the past four years. Through Frank’s eyes, we observe the transformative power of the continuum that destroys, creates, and, yes, heals as it cycles back upon itself.

The credits list for Blonde also seems to defy time. There are familiar names and expected collaborators, but also gracing the roll call are groups that have long ago broken up (Gang of Four, The Beatles) or even artists who have passed (David Bowie, Elliott Smith). Whether or not each certain artist was a bona fide contributor or simply a sample or inspiration is unmarked – which song each artist worked on is also not mentioned. This leads to a more engaging listening experience, as featured artists are also not credited in the tracklist; to find out who worked on which song, the listener has to, well, listen. Eventually, tiny details will emerge from the heft of the record. Beyoncé was applied like a paintbrush to the closing moments of ‘Pink + White’, Kendrick Lamar’s soulful crooning is a charcoal haze at the end of ‘Skyline To’. Most surprisingly though, experimental Swedish rapper Yung Lean has an uncharacteristically touching singing part in ‘Self Control’, stealing the scene with a warm, textured performance. And some collaborations are still being uncovered; until Apple Music confirmed it last night, there was only speculation to go on that James Blake and Bon Iver were involved in wistful cut ‘White Ferrari’. The most obvious feature is the return of channel ORANGE collaborator André 3000 on ‘Solo (Reprise)’. Using a new-school rapid fire flow à la Young Thug or Lil Yachty, 3 Stacks covers everything from hedonism, police brutality, fashion, gender roles, and disappointment with ghostwriting in just one minute and twenty seconds. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Blonde collaborator Sebastian said that speaking in depth about his role in the album was against its “general concept… [Frank Ocean] was the architect and everybody was working with him to make it happen. The concept was more about focusing into the result, not about who did what. It’s personal, but I felt that everybody was here for the project, for the music, the energy, not especially for themselves.”

The enigmatic credit list and focus on deep listening ties into themes of information overload due to the internet era that Frank stresses throughout Blonde  and even more so in Endless. French DJ Sebastian tells a provoking story of love during the eve of Facebook in late-album skit ‘Facebook Story’, about how a relationship of his ended after refusing to “friend” a girlfriend on the social media site. “I’m right in front of you” he exasperates, “… It’s nothing. A virtual thing.” Ocean himself reflects on his confoundment with modern times on slow-burning ‘Seigfried’: “I can’t relate to my peers. I’d rather live outside, I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here.”

Ocean’s disillusionment stretches into drug culture, which he seems to simultaneously reject and feed into. Cocaine is referenced on nearly every track as simply “white,” particularly cleverly in ‘Nikes’: “You must be on that white like Othello,” alluding to Shakespeare’s titular tragic hero who is a black man in love with a white woman. Interlude ‘Be Yourself’, which might have been comic fodder in the hands of a lesser artist, is composed entirely of a recorded voicemail from someone’s mother warning against usage of “drugs, marijuana, and alcohol.” Frank treats the recording with reverence and uses it to balance the ecstatic spree that takes place at the beginning of ‘Solo’, which is without a doubt one of the finest songs of Ocean’s career. The scene changes from a sweaty, acid-addled dance-off to a lonely night in Colorado, where Frank remembers, “I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you, stayed up ’til my phone died, smoking big, rolling solo…” before veering off into a tearful rendition of the chorus. His humane and realistic approach to drug usage (in the same song, he describes weed as “a cheap vacation”) is a welcome departure from the ecstasy-fueled EDM pop scene that has skyrocketed into the charts in recent years. Frank Ocean is self aware in his self medication, and the words of a mother – “Be yourself and know that that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to be like someone else, don’t try to act like someone else, be yourself. Be secure with yourself” – haunt the rest of the album.

Her message also resonates with Frank’s relatively recent coming out. Shortly after the release of ‘Bad Religion’ on his last record, Frank turned to Tumblr to write a moving note on the first man he ever fell in love with. It was a massively important moment in modern music: Frank Ocean is one of the first openly gay R&B stars to ever exist. Blonde, however, is remarkably post-queer. Ocean has made his views on gay pride public before this, but here, he lets the music speak for itself. There are no overt pride references; instead, Ocean lets his beautiful songwriting represent the love he feels for previous boyfriends. A gay bar is mentioned once, but a casual listener not familiar with Frank’s sexuality might pass through this record thinking it is a “traditional” (that is to say, “straight”) pop album. The most revolutionary thing about Blonde is that is just is. There are no politics, but identity tension is present nonetheless. On the more sexually visceral Endless, Frank refuses to cower away from or be coy with his homosexuality: “Suck a dick long as a swan neck, put some real swans in the pond” is perhaps the boldest rap flex of 2016. In the note that accompanies the album, Frank writes, “Raf Simons once told me it was cliché, my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. Consciously though, I don’t want straight—a little bent is good.” Blonde is a total rejection of the heteronormative pop scene. Frank Ocean entered the music machine with a crowbar to make this record, and bend he did.

Ocean’s “straight boy fantasy” of cars is a constant presence in the album. As a gearhead, Frank Ocean experiences life first and foremost through the lens of what car he drives, whether it be his family’s Acura or his brand new white Ferrari. He worships the romantic ideal of the automobile, how it is a symbol of freedom and endless possibility. And for the journey that this album traverses, you’d need a car. Blonde will be remembered for its sexual freedom, its powerful imagery, and its groundbreaking artfulness, but it should really be remembered by this image that Ocean references in the liner notes for the album: “A seatbelt reached across her torso, riding up her neck and a mop of blonde hair stayed swept, for the moment, behind her ears. Her eyes seemed clear and calm but not blank, the road behind her seemed the same.” He’s describing to us a picture of a little girl, which instead of allowing us to see he offers for us to feel.

On previous projects, Frank Ocean’s lyrics have usually inhabited characters, or else were coloured in beautiful metaphor. Blonde is his most personal album yet, with almost every track possessing autobiographical qualities; the album can be described most accurately as a collection of memories rather than songs. Highlight ‘Nights’ breaks down halfway through, turning into possibly the most delectable rap verse Ocean has ever delivered. His delivery is shy and unassuming, but his lyrics are evocative and full of life. Frank details his time in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina; his disillusionment with organised religion as a child, his love of music that was cultivated through the family car’s CD changer, and, after the storm, moving to Texas to live with a lover. We learn that their relationship is one-sided: Ocean is using him or her as a place to crash while he works night shifts to fund his escape to, we assume, Los Angeles, where he would start his music career. He covers all this ground in a short space but the moment stays suspended even as the track breaks down into a bridge and outro. Frank’s power with a pen is unmatched in modern music, and his unique gift of breathing vibrant life into verses and turns of phrase is unparalleled by even the greats.

This is just one example of his astonishing ability, you could pick any song off the album to cherish as a personal favourite moment. On ‘Ivy’, his teenage self has his first foray into love in the safety of his rental car: “We didn’t give a fuck back then. I ain’t a kid no more, we’ll never be those kids again.” A deer running across the road leads to steamy moonlit sex after Ocean turns off his car’s headlights to avoid scaring the animal (‘Skyline To’). ‘Good Guy’ is a mini-song/interlude that details his first encounters with an uninterested blind date where Frank remarks, “You text nothing like you look. Here’s to the gay bar you took me to. Here’s when I realised you talk so much more than I do.” There’s the religious imagery of ‘Solo’, and the cryptic lyrics of ‘Nikes’ and ‘Close To’. Each of these songs has an element of magic that is singular to a Frank Ocean record, and they all tie together beautifully. Listening to the record as a whole, little snippets separate and stick to you on each go-through, eventually weighing down on your body in a way that is most definitely physical, an experience that is simply intoxicating. The songcraft transcends its place in Frank’s vocals and enters your ecosystem, interjecting itself into your life in a manner as real as a visitor in the home. Ignore the words, and you might become sick from the baggage that this album will leave you with. Blonde requires iterative listens, regurgitation, and careful contemplation. It is a project that immediately elevates itself past mere sonic exercises and cultural phenomena, becoming almost sentient – ignore it at your own risk.