Frank Ocean’s Blonde is R&B for the woke
Keep a place for me, I'll sleep between ya'll it's nothing.....
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Listening to Frank Ocean’s third LP Blonde takes commitment. Blonde, formerly known under the working title Boys Don’t Cry, is a whole different animal than Ocean’s previous LP Channel Orange. Channel Orange was the peak of blog-spawned PBR&B, a dissertation on the outsider in the boys club of R&B. But despite all Channel Orange (and Ocean’s infamous tumblr open letter concerning his bisexuality) did for the culture, the record itself was nothing more than palatable crowd pleasers. Obvious single ready for Youtube cover proliferation? “Thinkin Bout You.” Completely uncontroversial commentary condemning the 1%? Take your pick between “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids.” Highfalutin Prince meets prog rock to satiate critics? “Pyramids.” While CO made its hits readily apparent, Blonde takes its time to be understood, hiding under a haze of muted strings and cryptic narratives. From the moment album opener “Nikes” kicks off in a screwed out codeine haze, the record differentiates itself from any preconceived notions about what Boys Don’t Cry ever could have been. While Frank is still lyrically concerned with similar themes of capitalist disillusionment and lost love, but something new has entered the fold that makes the LP an achievement all its own.
From a musical perspective, Blonde’s closest analog would be D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. While Frank is not very concerned with the more heady political themes Black Messiah did (save for the powerful “…RIP Trayvon, that n*gga look just like me,” on “Nikes”), the record drips with subtext around every corner. Down to the very title of the LP (with digital listings under the etymologically feminine Blonde while the limited physical CDs were titled the masculine Blond), the album is a full length exploration of gender fluidity and its relationship to the eroticism stereotypically associated with R&B. Pseudo-interlude “Good Guy” is a track built around an anecdote of a blind date to a gay bar, while album closer “Futura Free” serves as a bisexual power anthem with lyrics like “I don’t cut b*tches no more, but your b*tch my exception.” In a genre where R. Kelly’s “Trapped In the Closet” and Color Me Bad’s objectification anthems became The Vagina Monologues for a generation of fledgling misogynists, Blonde treats sexuality and relationships with a tenderness rarely practiced among the lotharios of R&B.
The most prominent theme running throughout Blonde is the reexamination of nostalgia and how romance can age in memory, something not to come as a surprise from the guy who named his debut Nostalgia, Ultra. The Beach House meets Phil Collins dream pop of “Ivy” begins with the profound “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me” only to later proclaim “We’ll never be those kids again” by the song’s close. Channel Orange was the soundtrack to wistfully thinking about someone recently gone, retelling yourself the story of every escapade to keep the fantasy alive. On the other hand, Blonde is music for falling out of love, when the introspection is over and you can finally perform an autopsy on the relationship. In this headspace, Ocean gets dangerously close to invoking Kierkegaard in that the greatest tragedy is that one experiences life forwards but can only learn backwards, with introspection only yielding fruit when it is no longer needed. Clear standout “Self Control” particularly plays with this notion, depicting a one sided conversation with an old flame where Ocean finds himself wistfully bellowing that he “wish[ed] we grew up on the same advice, and our time was right.” While Channel Orange simply spun yarns of love affairs and protagonists of various stripes, this LP is a post mortem of those narratives. For every “Lost,” there must be a “Self Control.” On Blonde, Ocean is not particularly concerning himself with the nights spent watching sunsets, but instead vulgar realizations such as “this nut cost, that clinic kill my soul” and or the fatalist declaration on “Nikes” that “I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you.” Even when the verb tense switches to the present and the syntax gets a little more hopeful on “White Ferrari,” it comes attached with a mournful Bon Iver-esque post-script that finds Ocean pathetically hoping “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension, you say we’re small and not worth the mention.” Even when love is in full bloom, the insignificance of it has to be put on display for all to see on Blonde.
While the insufferably pretentious rollout of the LP (from the streams to the bulky “magazine” featuring Kanye West penned slam poetry about McDonalds) and the glorified demo tape that was Endless seemed to spell trouble, Blonde is everything the fans hoped for and then some. From the Pharrell swing of “Pink + White” to Yung Lean taking the chorus of “Self Control” to the next level, Ocean compiled an LP that lands somewhere between takes the best of neo-soul and throws off the shackles of “alt-R&B.” While occasionally indulgent (“Solo (Reprise) seems to be here just so Frank can prove he can get Andre 3000 verses on request), Blonde will never let us forget that not even a name change can remove him from the Christopher Francis Ocean he once was. Laying out his autobiography 16 bars at a time on “Nights,” reminders that he “…preached self millionaire status when we could only eat at Shoney’s on occasion,” remind you that Ocean is a flesh and blood man. He is not the god of carnality that Prince was nor is he the bad boy charm of Jodeci. He was the quiet guy who just wanted to make it. Frank Ocean may still be the boy that holds the Playstation start up sound and fantasies of the bourgeois close to his heart, but he has learned to let it all go because sometimes you are better off solo.