This is a difficult album to contain in writing. At the same time both enigmatic and simple like Ocean himself, it manages to push past R&B into something dreamier, something new for which there is no mold.
There’s an ambient quality to it all: sweet, warm-toned melodies over crystal hums only set a stage. Ocean’s voice is a spotlight—singular, intimate, important; personal stories of love and nostalgia are our performance. Nowhere is this design more clear than in the opening track, “Nikes,” where an auto-tuned Ocean melts into the background for the first three minutes before shedding modification and melody. The music quiets and a voice cuts through, messy and real. After four long years, Frank Ocean is back.
Blonde is well worth the wait. It carries whispers of 2012’s Channel Orange, but there is a particular grandness to Orange not present here. Where Orange was loud, Blonde is quiet; where Orange swelled, Blonde turns inward—Ocean’s exploration here is deeper and more personal. Channel Orange put Frank Ocean on a pedestal from which Blonde sees Christopher Breaux stepping down. As he sings to his mom on the album’s final track, “Futura Free,” underneath a high-pitched auto-tune that makes him sound small and human: “Now I'm making 400, 600, 800K momma/ To stand on my feet momma/ Play these songs, it's therapy momma/ They paying me momma/ I should be paying them/ I should be paying y'all honest to God/ I'm just a guy I'm not a god.”
If there’s a single sentiment running like a vein through every song on the album, “I’m just a guy I’m not a god” is it. From “Nikes,” where he raps, “RIP Trayvon/ that n*gga look just like me” to “Ivy,” with the chorus “I thought that I was dreamin/ when you said you loved me” to the self-delusion about a love lost on “Self Control” (“it’s nothing, it’s nothing”), Frank again and again shakes off the cryptic, mysterious persona cultivated over years of public silence. He’s lived a life riddled with the same pains, joys, and struggles we all share and he’s brought them here to bare.
But he’s not out to prove his humanity any more than Kanye West is: the sense of human-ness follows instead from a genuine vulnerability, and vulnerability is what makes Blonde special. It’s what makes Ocean special. While hip-hop and R&B abound with larger-than-life personalities, stars whose bravado and confidence mesmerize, Frank Ocean has always opted for a subtler route. Outside of music, he communicates with the world through the occasional soft-spoken tumblr post. Outside of that, silence. When discussing his first love in one such post shortly before releasing Channel Orange, that the love was a man almost becomes secondary. He didn’t declare his gayness or his bi-ness, he shared it. “Whoever you are, wherever you are,” he began, “I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.”
Blonde makes waves the same way that that tumblr post did—without the splash of arrival. Despite years of pent up anticipation and surpassed expectations, it somehow manages to sneak up on you, with an emotion and tenor that move, deeply. Stripped down instrumentation and the tiny tremble of falsettos impress not with their strength, but with their weakness. The lyrics they outline do the same. On “Solo,” Frank sings in velvety runs over a single electric piano about being alone—its chorus is comfort for him as much as it is for us: “Inhale, in hell there’s heaven.”
The final four songs build and level out as Ocean, overwhelmed by love and nostalgia, finds a sliver of clarity, of ease. “White Ferrari” and “Seigfried” see Ocean’s voice stretching, weary atop brief, chaotic swells of emotion. He’s tired. “I’m not brave!” he cries over and over again in “Seigfried.” “I’m not brave!” He isn’t brave for being himself. He isn’t brave for caring. And he, like everyone else, isn’t brave enough to handle heartbreak or loss or love’s miasma.
And so he finds himself reflecting on days past, moments now divorced from life’s intensity. “Godspeed,” a gospel to a younger self, wherever and whoever that might be, offers assurance that life, for all its trouble, works out. In a tumblr post following Blonde’s release, Ocean expands on this idea, writing about the desire to be a kid again: “in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it [boyhood] was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.”
He’s just a guy, not a god, and guys stumble and hurt and wonder and smile. So to the kid at home listening, uncertain and afraid of what the future has in store, be uncertain and afraid. That’s ok. Hopefully you’ll look back one day and agree, it’s all good.
Editor’s Note: Barton has expressed remorse that he was unable to cover arguably the best track on the album, “Nights”. He wishes that all readers listen to this song.