Review Summary: All you want is Nikes... but the real ones.
Most contemporary musical artists will do damn near anything to chase - and then maintain - relevance. In an industry of declining record sales and infinite musical choices a click away, major singers and bands are prone to hawk their product and brand incessantly across social media, corporate promotions, and ad campaigns. The fear of overexposure has been replaced by the fear of being forgotten entirely, and artists have reacted by shoving themselves in their audience’s face to the point of exasperation and passivity.
It’s safe to say at this point that Frank Ocean is not like most artists today. In the four years preceding the release of Blonde
, Frank drifted steadily further from the spotlight, hiding himself away in the studio and avoiding nearly all social media, and virtually any public appearances - musical or otherwise. Frank’s sabbatical from public life shot expectations into the stratosphere for his follow-up to Channel Orange
, and after a protracted and unorthodox rollout, one of the key themes of listening to Blonde
is how it twists and subverts those very expectations to create a sparse, insular masterpiece.
As an opener, “Nikes” is both a promise and an affirmation. By beginning his long-awaited follow-up with three minutes of dramatically pitched-up vocals, Frank sends an immediate message that the album to follow was made on his own terms, and he is not beholden artistically to anything other than his own vision. The song shouts out the late A$AP Yams and Pimp C, who both died of drug overdoses including codeine - and the beat itself is a chopped-and-screwed downtempo haze reminiscent of codeine-fueled works of many Southern rap artists. But the most poignant remembrance is the one that follows: “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me” - one of the few times Blonde
’s opaque reminiscences coalesce into a definitive social statement.
When Frank’s unaltered voice finally reveals itself in the final two minutes of “Nikes”, adorned with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, it is as if the drugged-out haze has been parted by the sun. “We’ll let you guys prophesy”, he sings, setting up Blonde
’s recurring rumination on the passage of time, memory, and an uncertain future. “White Ferrari” is a double entendre, reminiscing on both a drug-addled car ride and the highs and lows of a past relationship. “Solo” switches from present to past tense, with the first verse recounting tales of youthful innocence, and the second verse looking back from a jaded, melancholy perspective. “Seigfried” is an existential crisis masquerading as a love song, with a reference to solar flares that could extinguish civilization - a reminder to live in the moment with a future that can’t be controlled.
These truths are revealed in a decidedly sparse manner, as Channel Orange
’s expansive compositions are largely replaced by bare-bones arrangements, frequently consisting of little more than Frank’s voice and a single guitar. This sparsity is at first disarming, as it often seems upon first glance that these tracks could be home demos rather than professional studio recordings. Yet upon repeat listens, the power of this minimalism to reveal the underlying beauty in the songwriting becomes clear. Frank’s voice, as stunning and versatile as it has ever been, takes center stage throughout, and his lyrics cut through the guitar feedback with breathtaking emotional precision. As for the instrumentation itself, the dominance of guitars throughout Blonde
gives the proceedings an indie rock edge rarely felt so strongly in R&B. A variety of studio collaborators, including Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, grace the record with diverse and subtle guitar work that perfectly fits each track. “Seigfried” is a particular standout, with a riff that feels straight out of classic rock ballads, pushed back in a haze of echo and reverb to appear as if broadcasting into the track from a distant stratosphere.
Perhaps most striking on Blonde
is the way that the variety of musical collaborators who contributed rarely make their presence explicitly known. Rather, their contributions serve as a means of achieving Frank’s singular vision, from which the album never wavers. Kendrick Lamar’s only vocal contribution to “Skyline To” is a few softly spoken words in the background, and even Beyonce is limited to harmonizing with Frank at the end of “Pink + White”, contributing very little lead vocals of her own. Tellingly, the only true guest vocal feature on the entire album is in many ways the best summation of Frank Ocean’s approach to artistry. On “Solo (Reprise)”, Andre 3000’s rapid-fire verse ends with a biting dig at rappers who use ghostwriters:
“After 20 years in, I'm so naive
I was under the impression
That everyone wrote they own verses
It's comin' back different and yeah that *** hurts me
I'm hummin' and whistlin' to those not deserving
I've stumbled and lived every word
Was I working just way too hard"”
For Frank and Andre, who have “stumbled and lived every word” in their songs, pure artistic expression is its own reward. Both men have carved out careers filled with bursts of brilliant creativity and long absences, and have lived intensely private lives outside the spotlight. And now, Frank Ocean has created a modern masterpiece that can stand tall with the best works of Outkast and others, who pushed black music in bold, experimental new directions by refusing to conform or compromise their vision. Because he knows that pure artistry will always find an audience, and that while relevance is fleeting, the impact left by true visionaries can be everlasting.