3 Reasons History Will Look Fondly On Blonde
Blonde, the official follow-up to Frank Ocean’s instant-classic debut album Channel Orange, finally made its grand debut Saturday night, putting an end to four years of feverish anticipation fueled by rumors, missed deadlines, and its author’s general absence from the public eye. Ocean’s scattered, less-is-more approach to promotion amplified the already deafening hype by several magnitudes, until the expectations for this album rose to almost unscalable heights — almost. When an artist of Ocean’s magnitude delivers new music, it’s often graded on a curve, bolstered by hysteria and brand familiarity, so that a body of work is received with rhapsodic praise by critics and fans even if it’s merely OK.
We saw that dynamic at work with Ocean himself two days before Blonde dropped. Reports were circulating that his official Channel Orange followup would be out over the weekend, but similar news two weeks earlier had proven false. So, with no tangible evidence that the “real” album would ever arrive, the music world rushed to embrace Endless, the drowsy mixtape and carpentry-tutorial-as-art-film Ocean released as a “visual album” last Thursday night. “Forget the technical details… and commercial semantics,” began one in-depth writeup, “and remember what Endless is: a Frank Ocean album. We don’t get those every day.”
Endless is fine, but its appeal was temporarily inflated by scarcity. Whereas Blonde is the really, truly awesome Frank Ocean album we’ve been waiting for all these years, yet it seems to have let a lot of people down. Ocean’s vaunted reputation has certainly influenced the discourse surrounding the album: Glowing reviews have abounded, and even most criticisms leveled at Ocean have been tempered by disclaimers. But much of the praise has been muted by disclaimers, too. I’ve noticed more hedging and outright negativity about Blonde than scolding lectures about its self-evident genius.
The Guardian’s Alex Macpherson, for instance, called it a “hookless morass,” while The Independent’s Andy Gill dubbed it “a trickling bubblebath of an album that ultimately runs lukewarm.” In an ostensibly positive review, Uproxx’s Steven Hyden wrote that Ocean “makes incomplete records that feel like classics from a distance.” Similarly, Blonde compelled The Washington Post’s Chris Richards to defend “the virtues of boredom.” And our own Tom Breihan was dissatisfied with the album’s dearth of obvious bangers, a notion many Stereogum commenters have affirmed this week.
Put simply, Blonde is not the consensus favorite its whopping 87% approval rating on Metacritic suggests. Polarizing is not quite the right word because rather than separate the lovers from the haters, the album seems to have grouped the masses into this weird middle ground. Most people seem afraid to outright pan it, but I also don’t hear anyone besides Adele arguing it’s his best work. Which is crazy to me because I don’t hear this unfinished, incoherent, hit-deficient slog I’ve read so much about. I hear an album that history will smile on. Here are three reasons.
(1) It’s Frank Ocean’s Kid A.
The most common complaints about Blonde among dissatisfied parties have been its lack of humongous anthems and, relatedly, its move away from pop structures toward a moody, insular sound world. The Frank Ocean people fell in love with on Nostalgia, Ultra wrote monster choruses and wrung maximum power out of classic songwriting tropes by tweaking them ever so slightly. He had hits for days — at least, we imagined he had hits for days, if he’d ever get around to releasing them. According to this line of thinking, the guy is so good at writing artful next-level pop songs that it’s cruel to deny a fan base that’s been fiending for more of that sweet, sweet “Novacane.”
This reminds me of all the clamor when Radiohead released Kid A back in Y2K. “Why is Thom Yorke shrouding his beautiful voice in effects-laden mumbles?” the legion of dissenters wondered. “Why is guitar mastermind Jonny Greenwood huddled over a circuit board?” they fumed. “Where do we go from here?” they typed ominously into chat rooms and AOL Instant Messenger windows before adding, cheekily, “The words are coming out all weird/ Where are you now?” The thought was that these guys were obscuring what made them great, that they’d made a willfully difficult album with no guitars and no singles. It was a popular proposition back then, never mind that the album actually did have plentiful crowd-pleasers, not to mention a healthy smattering of six-string action.
Time has been kind to Kid A, though. Sixteen(!) years down the line, everyone seems to acknowledge the album as a landmark collection of music, even the people who still think The Bends represents Radiohead’s creative peak. Given time, I think the skeptics will come around on Blonde, too. It’s not the album we were expecting, but it’s a richly complex left turn from one of our most powerful creative minds, one packed with future classics that happen to diverge from the path we’d all imagined. And anyhow, we should have seen this coming way back when Ocean was bumping “Optimistic” on Nostalgia, Ultra while grumbling, “All bitches want is Jodeci.”
(2) It’s the most “Frank Ocean” Frank Ocean album.
No album digs deeper into Ocean’s psyche than Blonde. It is his rawest and most vulnerable work to date as well as the broadest display of his influences — both the frankest and, um, ocean-est album in his discography. (OK, “most oceanic,” fine.)
At The Fader, Jordan Sargent observes that the character studies of Channel Orange have given way to actual autobiography, fragmentary and oblique but painfully honest all the same. Ocean has always been unafraid to present himself as fragile and confused, be it the mystified amusement of “Novacane” or the broken-down catharsis of “Bad Religion.” With the focus squarely on Frank throughout Blonde, that kind of relating dominates.
Ocean cultivates mystique by revealing so little of himself to the watching world, but what he does share in his music could not be more relatable, more human. Literally: Whereas many of his peers and associates have literally dubbed themselves deities, Ocean proclaims, “I’m just a guy, I’m not a god/ Sometimes I feel like I’m a god, but I’m not a god,” right after suggesting he’s the one who should be paying us. We see him waiting up in vain for a romantic rendezvous until his phone dies, or contemplating a life on the fringe and concluding, “I’m not brave.” In a field ruled by overconfident paramours, it’s a shock when Ocean admits, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me.” To hear him fondly recall the six-disc changer in his family’s humble Acura Legend is to be charmed and disarmed.
Just as courageous as Ocean’s self-disclosure is the decision to come back after four years with an album this low-key, a delicacy closer to soup than steak. Blonde sprawls and sprawls, covering a lot of sonic territory but rarely reaching skyward. The rewards are abundant, but rather than revealing itself with obvious charms, the album demands exploration. I can’t imagine a better expression of this guy’s personal ethos.
(3) It’s an important document of its era.
Many have noted Blonde’s fixation on the intersection of technology, isolation, and romance. And it does play like a meditation on being young and single in 2016: infatuation filtered through social media, more intimately connected with devices than with lovers. Note the aforementioned line from “Solo” about staying up late waiting until your phone dies, or the interlude about Facebook’s power to drive a lover mad with jealousy (just accept the friend request, though), or the instantly iconic “Good Guy” lyric, “You text nothing like you look.” When Ocean sings, “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t devastated/ But you could’ve held my hand through this, baby,” it’s easy to picture the other person buried in their phone, oblivious to a struggle playing out right in front of him.
Technology became an even bigger part of Blonde’s story when Ocean opted to release it as an Apple Music exclusive, perhaps the most 2016 thing about an album — and promotional campaign — that could not be any more 2016 if it tried. (See also: the popup shops, the accompanying zine, the concurrent “visual album,” the quasi-surprise release.) That Blonde may turn out to be the beginning of the end for these kinds of corporate arrangements only solidifies its place in history.
Beyond all that, Ocean’s intentionally slippery take on sexuality is emblematic of this watershed time in American culture, when the social revolutions of the late 20th century have gone into overdrive. Without making a show of it, the album is drenched in sex and drugs, casually indifferent to the binaries and taboos that seem to be rapidly disappearing into society’s rearview. Per The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, this fluidity extends to the cover art: “His album is called Blonde, but its cover reads blond, alongside a photo of Mr. Ocean, his short hair dyed neon green — the feminine, the masculine, the none of the above.” And even though he only barely glances at Black Lives Matter (the “R.I.P. Trayvon” moment on “Nikes”), Ocean doesn’t have to directly address current events to make a statement. His confident existence as a queer black man is its own affront to the terrorists who shoot up black churches and gay nightclubs. That it often comes across like a whisper does not diminish the volume with which it speaks to its moment.