Review: Blond – Frank Ocean

The most important question that Frank Ocean asks on Blond is, how does an artist break free from the mold that society has created for them? Despite the album’s dense mysticism and grand lyrical themes, I found this question asked by the music of Blond. The first time I listened to the record, I was thrown. In retrospect, it wasn’t because the album sounded so incredibly avant-garde, or because any aspect of it was particularly bad; rather, the sounds I heard just weren’t how I thought of Frank Ocean.

Many, including myself, were introduced to Frank via his breakout LP Channel Orange. The release, alongside his various high profile features and credits, established Frank as one of the best songwriters in modern music. There were soft neo-soul ballads like “Thinkin’ Bout You,” hip hop slow burners like “Super Rich Kids,” and hypnotic rhythmic cuts like “Crack Rock.” However, while Channel Orange excelled in bring Frank’s music to a larger audience with all its single-power, it certainly didn’t take many risks. Even when it did, like on the 9-minute EDM-tinged “Pyramids,” the experiment feels out of place and pails in comparison to the rest of the record.

To state all this is not to say that a record has to take risks to be good (Channel Orange is probably among my favorite albums of the 2010’s so far,) but to rather, note that Frank played it relatively safe on his full-length debut. Between then and now, due just as much to a lack of new music as to the success of his prior LP, the world has begun to see Frank Ocean simply as the man it heard on Channel Orange. That is, a pop-R&B crooner with some great, simple songs. All of a sudden, Frank is rejecting that.

I truly believe that the key to understanding Blond is remembering that it is NOT Channel Orange. Besides Frank’s voice and verses from André 3000, the two records have little in common; Blond is far more experimental. I find this strikingly apparent in the song structures. Look at “Nikes,” for example: the song opens with a hypnotic, clumsy groove, which continues for the duration of the song. Frank enters with pitch-shifted vocals (which are more than a little annoying) and they continue for a few minutes. This is followed by a break, where Frank employs a more traditional tone, and the song continues, essentially repeating the same sections over and over again. Those verse/chorus structures you loved on “Super Rich Kids” are gone, and they’ve been replaced by rambling forms and abrupt endings, more akin to Bob Dylan than modern R&B.

Another huge difference between Blond and Channel Orange is the atmosphere on either record. The latter is a hazy journey between personal struggles, fueled by catchy choruses. The former, though, is a bit more contemplative. Certain moments are given time (sometimes too much) to fully evolve, like on the the gorgeous “White Ferrari.” Others come and go in an instant, before you’ve had time to fully enjoy them. I, like many others, wish André was given more time on “Solo (Reprise),” which is possibly the album’s only true banger.

The majority of cuts on Blonde give less instant-gratification and take a little more time to chew on. When the production is on point, and it often is, this results in some truly beautiful moments of intense sonic invention. I found myself noting, between 5 or 6 different tracks, that Frank’s vocal tone perfectly counter-balanced the effect or tonality of the instrument he was singing over. Alex G contributes many of the guitar parts you hear, and his otherwise dull reverb-soaked 80’s worship is overcome by the melodies and musical concepts that a mature artist like Frank brings to the table.

I believe that those melodies are Blond’s biggest selling point. Yes, it’s a pretty album, and there are lots of really sweet moments. Still, though, my favorite track ended up being “Solo,” not because it was so immaculately produced, but because it’s infectious. There are four different melodic sections, all of which are equally compelling. The same is true of “Pink + White,” which brings a soulful, teeming Marvin Gaye-style groove reminiscent of Frank’s older tunes.

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Frank goes off. Image via Rolling Stone

Still, there is a balancing act going on here. The combination of cute ballads, superfluous skits, and long, emotional heart-string-pullers does not always make for an interesting listen. The record doesn’t quite have a palpable pulse. I make it to “Solo,” feeling energized and excited, and then get three boring cuts in a row. The vocals drone and every note feels held to its maximum potential, as 10 minutes become 30. So many songs feel unnecessary, and it makes listening to the entire record a bit of a chore. Do I really need to sit through a minute and a half of Frank’s mom telling him not to smoke weed? Or his R&B-muzak version of a James Blake song, “Pretty Sweet?” My answer is an unequivocal “no.”

I sometimes think this problem could be solved just by adding more drums. I’ve hinted at it thus far, but the album definitely feels ballad-heavy to me. This not only impacts the flow of Blond, but the dynamic diversity as well. Some songs (looking at you, “Nikes”) seem to go on for 5 minutes or more (looking at you, “Futura Free”) without progressing whatsoever. Instead, they stagnate in a swirling, somewhat self-indulgent array of fancy chords and falsettos. It’s not just something I’m not interested in hearing; it’s something that I’m appalled to hear from a guy like Frank Ocean, who has so much experience writing songs… maybe Alex G got the best of him in a few places.

Luckily, even in these less-interesting moments, there is a lot of a beauty and passion. One thing I can’t deny is that Frank is singing his fucking heart out from the first song to the last on this project, which is admirable in itself. Even though not all of the risks paid off, I’m incredibly glad that we got Blond instead of Channel Orange Pt. 2. As Frank deliberately eschews the labels that listeners and industry folk alike have tried to cast upon him, he’s gradually moving towards becoming one of the great artists of our generation. We’re beginning to see him not just in the rap or R&B world, but in the EDM world, the pop world, and even the 70’s glam rock world. The lesson to be learned here? Give artists room to grow, and they will surprise you.

7/10

Written by Preston Fulks

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