[Boys Don’t Cry]
About three years ago I went to see Frank Ocean in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and in truth, it was a largely disappointing gig. Everyone was there to see The Killers, who were headlining, and Frank played a quite subdued, short set to the few thousand people who presumably were there specifically to see him, while everyone else milled about lashing into overpriced pints and waiting for ‘Mr. Brightside’, or whatever.
It wasn’t that he was bad – he’s probably not even capable of achieving anything close to that – but he seemed to almost purposely shy away from the occasion. So often musicians portray a sense of vulnerability in their work that is not as perceptible in the flesh, as their insecurities give way to a natural desire to perform and impress. The memories of that day sit alongside the pixelated, grainy footage of old Elliott Smith gigs that I used to pore over, not only because of a similarly demure stage presence but also because of a comparable sentiment in their work.
If any lingering sense of doubt about whether he could live up the considerable weight of expectation set by channel ORANGE and the seemingly never-ending wait for a follow up remained after the brilliant-in-its-own-right Endless then it was dispelled within a few bars of the breathtaking ‘Nikes’. Lyrically and thematically it is deceptively complex – lines like “Said she need a ring like Carmelo / Must be on that white like Othello” invoke the situation that star basketball player Carmelo Anthony finds himself (he has never won an NBA Championship despite being considered one of the better players of his generation), setting up a deeply layered Othello reference. The use of auto-tune in the opening verse is both a creative use of an overused instrument and a way of making his first unscrambled words all the more impactful. And when those words are used to warn critics, media and fans alike that only he can create his future while they can merely predict it, the sense of purpose in this build-up is clear.
There has always been a sense of vulnerability about Frank Ocean’s lyrics and it is part of what has made his music so utterly endearing. Songs like ‘Swim Good’, ‘We All Try’, ‘Thinkin’ Bout You’ and ‘Bad Religion’ amongst others struck a chord with people in a way that few artists in recent decades have managed. However, there is a sense of rawness to the emotion and honesty on Blonde that is bordering on disconcerting. “I thought that I was dreaming, when you said you loved me”, he croons on the chorus of ‘Ivy’. It seems like the words of a man who never thought he was worthy of being loved and echoes the thoughts expressed by most people in their darkest hours. ‘Pink + White’ breaks through his gloom like a warm breeze on a summer’s evening, a welcome respite from the dark, late-night imagery that envelops almost every other song. It sounds almost effortless and it’s a reminder that Ocean is capable of first class easy-going pop music in addition to harsh soundscapes and Prince-level artistry.
There is something so candid about his lyrics and especially the delivery that is heart-wrenching. The wonderful, captivating ‘Self Control’ is the most pointed example of this. Along with every other song on display here, it is overwhelming in its sheer depth of feeling, like reading Hamlet for the first time. There is inflection, hidden meaning and double entendre at every turn. When ‘Self Control’ finally releases, it feels like a true – rare – moment of dénouement. As a listener, as Ocean desperately refrains “I, I, I know you gotta leave, leave, leave” it is hard not to get drawn in and just breathe. It is a song that is a display of his immense power as a writer and as a musician. Few are able to evoke such feeling, particularly in a time when people are generally so jaded.
‘Good Guy’ is another welcome distraction, sandwiched as it is between the aforementioned ‘Self Control’ and the stunning ‘Nights’. This is not to say that it is not important in its own right, as Frank muses on the self-centeredness of others and the way in which different parts of society respond to the opposite sex, but it feels like a purposeful attempt to allow the listener to catch some respite.
It is hard not to think about the past when listening to Blonde, because it is a record that evokes it so strongly, and it is equally difficult to ignore the way it directly references the work of so many doomed, fragile artists who have succumbed to their personal demons. When Frank sings the words of Elliott Smith, reworks The Carpenters’ ‘Close to You’ or calls out to Whitney Houston at the end of ‘Godspeed’ it is worrisome – are these the people he sees as kindred spirits? That sense of melancholy lingers over everything on Blonde, even in the occasional moments of wry humour (the voicemail from a mother figure or asking someone who had presumably been ignoring him for a long time “did you call me from a séance?”) there is always a darkness right behind it.
Ocean’s use of guests is very interesting, with only Andre 3000 (who seems almost universally admired by his peers, a testament to how talented he is) given a real star turn. His verse on ‘Solo (Reprise)’ is flawless in every sense, from delivery and flow to his incredible lyrics. There is a tendency for rappers to occasionally show up and lower the tone in spots like this, but Andre doesn’t feel out of place at all while also providing a real sense of variety as the record gets ready to head down the stretch. All of a sudden, as ‘Dre finally pauses for breath, the listener is assaulted with the frenetic opening of ‘Pretty Sweet’, complete with hellish visions (‘We pour a taste out for the dead / This is the blood, the body, the life right now“) of a violent, regretful night out. Just as suddenly it ascends into an angelic, gospel feel. It’s all very difficult to make sense of, but it feels like that is the point.
The closing group of ‘White Ferrari’, ‘Seigfried’, ‘Godspeed’ and ‘Futura Free’ feels like a fitting end to what will surely be the album of the year. ‘White Ferrari’ is as beautiful as it is crushing, serving in a sense as the opposite end of the emotions expressed in ‘Thinkin’ Bout You’ (Blonde is filled with these sorts of references). Instead of a fighter jet he doesn’t get to fly, Frank has a white Ferrari that he perhaps takes advantage of a little too much. A reference to his love of cars and, presumably, a period in his life when he was doing a lot of cocaine with his then-lover, it’s yet another example of how Ocean manages to weave these complex musical tapestries before bringing them crashing down with the simplest of words. In this case, it’s “I care for you still and I will forever”.
The reference to Elliott Smith’s ‘A Fond Farewell’ on ‘Siegfried’ – like all of the other similar snippets of covers throughout – is done both tastefully and in a way that enhances the meaning of the song. While Smith was saying a parting goodbye to heroin, Ocean seems to be drawing a line under all of the debauchery and misery that has mean him getting away from who he really is. His mother’s voicemail from ‘Be Yourself’, funny in its own right, feels much more meaningful and serious at this point. This theme is continued on ‘Futura Free’ as he seems to return to a simpler time, reminiscing about before he got famous in a verse directed towards his mother and seguing into an interview with his younger brother as the album – peacefully, finally – closes out.
When an album like Blonde comes out, writing a review seems almost superfluous. Particularly when the material is as dense as this, there should (and probably will) be numerous volumes of academic, peer-reviewed writing on Frank Ocean’s work in the decades and centuries to come. Taking it on as a whole is as difficult as it is futile. Is it a perfect album? Probably not quite, but that’s a difficult conclusion to come to having spent only two weeks with it. It’s certainly close, and the only criticisms that immediately spring to mind are nit-picky in the extreme. Blonde is a bit on the short side (a blow undoubtedly softened by having Endless to turn to) and while the skits are all meaningful, on repeated listens it’s tempting to skip ahead when that voicemail comes on or during ‘Facebook Story’ or go straight back to ‘Nikes’ as soon as the musical portion of ‘Futura Free’ ends. Blonde is an incredible achievement and definitive proof that in Frank Ocean we have one of the finest artists of this generation on our hands.