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REVIEW: Frank Ocean – ‘Blonde’ (Boys Don’t Cry / Def Jam)

frank_ocean_blondeby John Tindale

FINALLY! The most anticipated album of 2016 is here. Back in 2012, Frank Ocean changed the musical and cultural landscape with Channel Orange, a genre-bending blend of masterful lyricism and hypnotic melodies that made him the hottest name in pop. Since then, Ocean has ridden the wave of being off the radar but never forgotten, and from delayed release dates to a stream of an empty warehouse in Brooklyn and the brand new, contemporary Apple Music visual album, Endless, we have finally arrived in the Blonde era.

Blonde is a stunning affair of slacker pop, R&B, and hip-hop all in equal significance and excellence. The album begins with lead single ‘Nikes’, a distorted Auto-Tuned snare and a synth-infused stream of consciousness which covers a range of topics from A$AP Yam’s death to being drugged up and watching the world drift by. It’s the exact type of slacker pop that Ocean has built his name on with the contrasting vocals and blasé attitude, and my goodness isn’t great?

‘Ivy’ is a more psychedelic affair in which Frank Ocean reflects on a past relationship. Lyrics speaking of the contrast of relief and lack of preparation Frank felt is contrasted by the mutual hatred and wasted time in the chorus. Again the track sonically keeps the guitar rhythms flowing as the vocal becomes more and more deteriorated until only an auto-tuned scream to “Dream on” is left. ‘Self Control’ follows a similar theme of lo-fi guitars and electronics being rapped over in a typically sad Ocean style; the features of Austin Feinstein and Yung Lean combine in the chorus majestically to create a moment of blissful tranquillity.

A key aspect of Blonde is the assurance that Ocean has in what he is doing and that is never more apparent than in album highlight ‘Pink And White’. The track begins with gorgeous pianos and the typically melodic vocal of Ocean, it’s a sombre affair that twinkles along with lyrics of cocaine trips and imagery of a shattered life in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The real moment of confidence is the features; Beyoncé is used as if nothing, a mere backdrop in the final verse – a collaboration that most musicians would see as the pinnacle of their career, Ocean treats as an afterthought.

The same can be said for Kendrick Lamar’s feature during ‘Skyline To’; in what should be a dream collaboration from two of the greatest musicians of the 21st century is reduced to Lamar punching extra words in the background –another feature, another afterthought.

Blonde is punctured by four minute-long interlude tracks that break up the album superbly. The pick of the four is ‘Good Guy’ a mournful affair which follows the bleak picture created by ‘Self Control’, as he depicts a blind date gone wrong due to the man’s lack of wanting something serious, and allows for the stabbed guitars of ‘Nights’ to follow. While ‘Facebook Story’ is a moment where you can question just how much of an impact technology has had, as French producer SebastiAn speaks of a relationship of three years ending because he didn’t add his girlfriend on Facebook.

‘Pretty Sweet’ is the most satisfying interlude, however. The track bursts to life in its budding stages with an urgent sound being taken away by the ushering in of choral beauty; it feels like the greatest insight into the whirring thoughts of Ocean’s mind as three sonic ideas are gone as quickly as they come in –the fact the track ends with a hint of drum and bass just bends the mind.

Minimalism is a key feature of the record and this is never more true than during ‘White Ferrari’; a cacophony of vocals and a Bon Iver influence drive this song along wonderfully – the track ends in a similar way to ‘Nights’ as the song is turned on its head in the closing stages. Meanwhile, ‘Seigfried’ harks back to mythology and the power of bravery, the closing repetition of “I’d do anything / (In the dark)” is a surprising earworm in an album full of surprising earworms.

The nine minutes of ‘Futura Free’ closes the record with synths and emotion coursing through the songs veins it brings a climax to a magnificent record. The track speaks of humble beginnings, the pride he has in his music and ultimately the fear of death as he speaks of “Selena” and “Tupac”. The track again is broken in two, with the album ending in a series of interviews with basic questions before simply asking “How far is a light year?” a sign of just how far Ocean has come in the past four years.

It took a long time, but ultimately it was worth the wait; during Blonde‘s 61 minutes Ocean delivers a sonic journey through soul, pop, psychedelia and rap in the way only he can. Everything about the record is assured, it’s open, outward-looking and revealing yet constantly finds a way to internalise back to the listener. This year we’ve had records from Beyoncé, Radiohead, Kanye West etc. but in the midst of the global icons, a superstar introvert has released the most important album of the year and his second masterpiece in a row. (9/10)

You can listen to Blonde and the visual album Endless via Apple Music.

Was it worth the wait? Tell us what you think below!

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