Album Review: #4: Frank Ocean - Blond
by sarah muhammad
Looking back on various websites and social media, you can connect a virtual timeline from 2012 to 2016 in articles, tweets, tabloids, Youtube hoaxes, and snaps in the long and grueling anticipation of a particular album release from a particular artist. Until August of this year, Frank Ocean’s career and reputation sat under the full weight of his 2012 debut album, Channel Orange, (a refreshing take on R&B panache) for over 4 years before the anticipation literally burst out of control. Ocean quietly and suddenly released a visual album titled Endless exclusively under ITunes and the next day released what has become the shining specimen of a new take on avant-garde minimalism, an album titled Blond. Blonde is in many ways everything that Channel Orange is not, diving right down to the production and being completely barren and raw in both sound and style, leaving out the grandiose elements and making it imperative to appreciate the nuances and subtleties. While this stark contrast blindsided some who had strong expectation of something vastly different, for myself it serves as a much needed detour. The album begins with “Nikes”, a track which features a highly pitched, dreamy vocal of Ocean in the beginning that fades back to normal in the breakdown, as he sings about the hedonism and materialism embedded into the industry (“These bitches want Nikes/They looking for a check/Tell 'em it ain’t likely”). In the breakdown of verse 2, he visits a semi spoken word style of delivery as he talks about the abstract concepts of his inner conflict with possession vs. peace of mind. The themes of reminiscing on past occurrences weigh heavy on this project (“Ivy”, “Be Yourself”, “Solo”), but “Pink+White” represents an appreciation for the beauty in life and is a continuation on the motif of color that the singer likes to play on. Ocean delivers sharp and mystical imagery in his second verse of the song (“In the wake of a hurricane/Dark skin of a summer shade/Nose dive in the flood lines/Tall tower of milk crates/It's the same way you showed my”), drawing allusions to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (Ocean’s hometown) again in the most abstract way, circled in an angelic vocal duet with Beyoncé. Ocean gets deeply personal and emotional in the ambient “Self Control”, where under soft, acoustic guitar melodies he tells a heartfelt story of a disillusioned relationship. The vocal performance on this track is the most intense on the entire album, where the vibrato matches to the pain with which Ocean tells his story (“Now and then you miss it, sounds make you cry/Some nights you dance with tears in your eyes/I came to visit 'cause you see me like a UFO/That's like never, 'cause I made you use your self control/And you made me lose my self control, my self control”) and mimics a soft cry in some parts that deepens that urgency of this song. The most interesting productorial credit on the album comes from “Nights”, a two sided track which parallels the stylings of “Pyramids” from Channel Orange. The song starts out with a more invigorating tone, as Ocean runs through lines unconsciously detailing the exhaustion that comes with fame and being considered an important person, but knowing that his career supplies for both himself and his family (“Round the city, round the clock/Everybody needs you/No you can't make everybody equal”), so he must oblige for himself and against his enemies (“Know them boys wanna see me broke down and shit/Bummed out and shit, stressed out and shit/That's every day shit”). The track enters the bridge, again with Ocean in pitched vocal back and forth until the end, and abruptly enters into the second part, a moody and somber R&B track. It is also noted in production that this shift marks the 30 minute point in the album in which a stylistic shift occurs for the rest of the album, exploring the duality of Ocean’s intentions with the project. “Pretty Sweet” is a definitive maker on the second part of the album, with the dissonant, medieval like production and chaotic arrangement that quite literally sounds like you are being dragged into the pits of hell on Judgment Day. The thick complexities in the intent of the lyrics of this song are somewhat overpowering to unpack, matching completely to the sound, where it is so powerful that it is almost unapproachable, but nonetheless flawless in alignment. Other notable production and vocal features include Andre 3000 (“Solo Reprise”), SebastiAn (“Facebook Story”), James Blake (“White Ferrari”), and Kim Burrell (“Godspeed”). The work in production on Blonde is perhaps the most insurmountable by any other project this year, expressing the dichotomies of love vs. hate, greed vs. fulfillment, maturation vs. naivety, and the dualities of Ocean’s bisexuality. From the artfully distorted and glitchy engineering to the bleakness of expression in some points, the full intent drawn out into each part and made for a beautiful and inspiring final product.
Best Tracks: “Pink +White”/“Self Control”
Best Production: “Nights”/“Pretty Sweet”
*The album is noted as the Writer’s Choice for Best Production of the Year*