Singer/songwriter Frank Ocean is back, delivering a stripped-down, experimental approach to pop, R&B and soul music with his sophomore studio album ‘Blonde.’ To no one’s surprise, Frank is able to pull it off masterfully, creating something that feels radically different from his previous album ‘channel ORANGE.’
The approach Ocean took with ‘Blonde’ is one of incredibly powerful modesty. The production as well as the instrumentation on this 17-track project is adventurous and bold, while all of it rests in simplicity. Perfect examples of that being tracks like “Solo,” “Ivy,” “White Ferrari,” “Self Control” as well as “Pink + White,” which includes some heavenly background vocals from Beyonce. It’s one of the first things you’ll notice when listening to the album – this production is nowhere near as lush and vibrant as the production on ‘channel ORANGE,’ certainly not in the same way. It’s a deliberate turn in another direction, and once you can understand the somber, stripped-back tone he was going for, ‘Blonde’ becomes magnificent.
“Nikes” may be a weird way to start off the album for some, although the production here feels more like ‘channel ORANGE’ than almost any other track on the album. For one, Frank’s vocals are altered for the first half of the song, making his voice sound high-pitched. But the effects on his voice began to grow on me with each listen, and the lyrics of the song definitely allow it to stay memorable. Materialism and drugs are being referenced, and it feels like Frank is waiting to move away from this kind of lifestyle.
This theme comes up again in “Solo,” with a very appropriate skit/voicemail preceding it. Only using an organ and his crooning vocals, Frank dissects the world “solo” and explores its multiple meanings. Being alone, a solo for a rock star on stage, lacking a romantic connecting and being “so low” as to turn to drugs. Stating in the hook “inhale, inhale there’s heaven” and “inhale, in hell, there’s heaven.” Pretty much detailing every reason and scenario someone could fall prey to drugs to find their high. And Frank does this over a beautiful melody with the shifting organ chords, delivering the lyrics with a spoken-word-like cadence in the second half of the song.
Loneliness is another theme that is often touched on throughout this project. Reminiscing on an old love with “Ivy,” driven by nothing but these raw guitars. Probably the best example would be with the track “Self Control,” where Frank is expressing a desire to be with a past lover, even if they are already in a relationship. “Keep a place for me, for me / I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing,” sung by Yung Lean and Austin Feinstein during the hook. Simple strings on a guitar carry the song, with violin strings later showing up, with the vocals progressively becoming louder.
It’s during this section of the album where Frank becomes even more experimental, with the percussion and drums missing from a number of the songs. Bands like The Beach Boys and The Beatles were somewhat of an influence when Frank was recording the album, and with that in mind, the spacey ballads make more sense. Tracks like “White Ferrari” and “Seigfried” feel as though they were influenced the most by those artists from the ’60s and ’70s. These are also two of the most emotional tracks on the album, again, using very little instrumentation to get the point across.
There are a number of extremely talent artists, from multiple different genres, who helped contribute to this album. Some being producers, like Pharrell on “Pike + White,” which has to be one of the best instrumentals on the album, as well as Frank’s buddy Tyler, the Creator on “Skyline To.” Andre 3000 returns to deliver yet another verse that will amaze hip-hop heads, much like he did in “Pink Matter” on ‘channel ORANGE.’ Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake and the London Contemporary Orchestra contributed vocally or instrumentally. There are even samples from The Carpenters and Elliot Smith.
‘Blonde’ is an eclectic piece of art. The title of the album is expressed one way on iTunes, ‘Blonde,’ and it’s written differently on the album artwork, ‘Blond.’ This is meant to illustrate the masculine (Blond) and feminine (Blonde), representing a sort-of gender fluidity with the album. This makes all the sense in the world, given Frank’s bisexual identity, and love songs about both men and women.
It’s okay if you prefer ‘channel ORANGE’ to this, they are two very different albums. However, ‘Blonde’ is much more experimental and it succeeds in its ambitious efforts. For that reason alone, it is a triumph and absolutely worth listening to.