Albums of 2016 (#1): Frank Ocean – Blonde
The Skinny's album of 2016, Frank Ocean's second full-length record prods fearlessly at the reality of modern life
2016: a year which swiped away our best-loved musical pioneers with horrifying ease; saw US police forces continue to take careful aim at black men and women; forced the innocent (and ultimately unwelcome) human collateral of long-term Western intervention to seek ever more desperate methods to flee their homes; proved that Brexit meant shambles; and ended with the elevation of a crazed and ill-equipped monster (one who campaigned tirelessly on a ticket of racism, misogyny and division) to the world’s most powerful political office.
2016 felt like a dream – one from which we would surely wake with a start and in a cold sweat, relieved that the worst nightmares are always the ones that we script in our heads in the dead of night. Real? This is real?
Apparently so. The year’s unremitting horrors were as real as this unpalatable reality age would allow and, four years after he emerged as one of our most watchful commentators with debut channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean bequeathed Blonde: a brooding, exploratory and deeply personal work that prods fearlessly at the reality of 21st century living and its often insurmountable challenges. 'Real'? The word suddenly wants for meaning.
On opener Nikes – an epic, head-spinning meditation on materialism, fakery (of both goods and people) and mortality, with sidelong references to Shakespeare and Disney for good measure – Ocean sets the tone, signalling the increasing scope and reach of his disarming worldview. Blonde’s first two songs contain more ideas, generosity and performance than a multitude of recently lauded confessionals. 'I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me... we’ll never be those kids again.' By the time Ivy shudders (quite literally) screaming to a halt, Ocean has his reality in sharp focus: we loved, we lost (translation: 'I fucked up again') and no amount of hazy recollection can shift the lingering pain.
Blonde: the backstory
Blonde’s unwieldy backstory is almost as fascinating as its content. Ocean first gave notice of a follow-up in 2013, just a year after channel ORANGE had attracted widespread critical and commercial success. In early 2014, he teased that the album was nearly finished but it would be a year before he confirmed that it would now be released in the summer of 2015. However, the year ended and still no sign.
Fast-forward to August 2016. The 45-minute visual album Endless, streamed exclusively on Apple Music, ended Ocean’s four-year silence. A fascinating but ultimately frustrating piece, it was no channel ORANGE. It couldn’t match it for songcraft, and rather than deliver another shot of its predecessor’s sweet melancholy, it railed and rattled, and felt almost half-formed. It was a brain dump, a folly (though an expressive and artful one) rather than album number two.
That arrived one day later. After its many delays, it was almost too much to take in. 17 tracks and, punctuated by a handful of smartly programmed ‘interludes’, it's an album that works the old fashioned way: in sequence and as a whole. Possessed of an innate fragility, it didn’t even attempt to match channel ORANGE for big tunes and radio currency. There is no Sweet Life, no Pyramids. But there is a thrilling devil-may-care quality to the way in which Ocean continues to toy with and re-scope genre norms.
'Minimal beats and rich musicality'
Solo is just Ocean and barely-there keys. It’s a tender meditation on loneliness, on how it’s possible to feel lost and alone amidst millions: 'It’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire.' Much of Blonde is Ocean diarising in the wee small hours, seemingly outside of and disconnected from his past, recalling where he was and who he was as time threatens to slowly distance him from events.
If the seemingly loose dynamics of Blonde initially indicate sprawl and detachment, repeated plays confirm otherwise. This is an album that meanders and explores but whose robustly engineered construction anchors Ocean’s lyrical fancies. 'Summer’s not as long as it used to be,' he muses on Skyline To, a track written with and featuring Kendrick Lamar. Throughout, Ocean replays his past through a gauze of wonder and regret.
Blonde’s minimal beats disguise a rich musicality. Big names accompany but you barely notice – or perhaps you do, and they have the good taste to stand back and not take over. You can go half a dozen plays of the glorious Pink + White before you clock that it’s Beyonce breathing 'Take care...' in the background. One of Blonde’s stand-out tracks, it’s testament to Ocean’s developing versatility and signals a switch from his more typical mode of recounting scenes to a an almost abstract prose poetry: 'In the wake of a hurricane, dark skin of a summershade / Nose dive in the flood lines, tall tower of milk crates.'
Nights is a mini symphony, a lights-down contemplation that hurdles multiple tempo changes, mood swings and vocal stylings. A pained and poignant personal history, it documents a day, a month, a year in the life. 'You know I can’t hear none of that spend the night shit.' Again: not ready to be loved.
On the ersatz gospel of White Ferrari, Ocean again sketches a worldview at odds with his lover’s ('Mine on the road, your dilated eyes watch the clouds float') and a writing credit for both James Blake and The Beatles (a subtle lift from Here, There and Everywhere) makes for Blonde’s most perfectly elegiac moment. The closing section is unspeakably beautiful: Ocean’s higher register and minimal piano backing. 'I'm sure we're taller in another dimension / You say we're small and not worth the mention.'
In an era of male hip-hop stars routinely operating from a position of supreme self-promotion – a braggadocio built on the wanton accumulation of cash and an ever-present, sly misogyny – Ocean’s asethetic is informed by an unfashionable modesty: an interior mode of expression fortified by a compassion that lasers through the corporate cock-swinging of the Chris Browns of the world and ultimately finds kinship with the greats. Blonde would not be diminished by being played immediately after Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? (or, for that matter, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Ocean chronicles his failings and regrets with a winning candour that recalls the queen at her finest.)
For now, his work is shot through with a melancholy that his voice, his mid-tempo beats and his spare arrangements bring into sharp focus. Here is a man who has loved. And here is a man who has lost. A lot. It is too early to say if his humanity will spark new voices to find encouragement in his fearlessness or succour in his desire to share no matter what the personal cost. It takes a unique courage to stare down the homophobia of much of the hip-hop and R'n'B world, with its industry standard commitment to traditional and reductive notions of maleness. Women are still slavishly characterised in promo videos as male assets: half-naked ornamentation against a backdrop of boys’ club bravado.
And now, as if the battle to retain an inch of dignity and personal freedom – against the expectation of societal norms, and the weight of increasing casual and legislative prejudice – was not hard enough, here comes a US president sputtering a deep hatred for every goddamn thing Frank Ocean is, cares for, represents. We need our artists to retain a keen eye, to grasp the limitless reach new platforms have afforded them, to shape the popular protest.
We need them to count us in. One voice and then another. And another. Voices carry. Frank Ocean is no rabble-rouser but on Blonde his stark intimacies tease the possibility that when one voice speaks for us all, anything is possible; that dreams of community, understanding and free love are perhaps worth blowing five decades’ worth of dust off, after all.