Four years is a long time to wait for new music. Just the idea of new music from Frank Ocean was starting to distract from the singer’s very real talents as it was delayed and delayed again. The protracted rollout began to resemble a cruel psychological experiment and would ultimately prove to have entered into murky legal territory, but it could all be forgotten in an instant.
‘Nikes’, the sumptuous opening track of Blond(e), the second of Ocean’s two new albums, is a consummate reintroduction to his perma-fried take on pop, his boundless creative energy and acute ability to astonish with a single line. It’s an engrossing, intimate odyssey in which Ocean spills telling thoughts and throwaway observations over a shifting, downbeat tableau of warped synths and strings.
Blond(e) and its odd-duck precursor Endless are defined by a similar sense of spread. Without the aid of Genius, it is pointless trying to break Endless down into tracks, and oftentimes it feels like Ocean is paying lip service to convention by giving his songs borders at all. These are sprawling sonic creations that shift in texture (and sometimes genre) from minute to minute and encapsulate their creator’s insular, scattershot mind with their unknowable configurations.
With that said, however, Blond(e) is still a deeply personal album concerning Ocean’s fear of death, his chronic inability to make and maintain meaningful connections, and the refuge he seeks in hedonism. ‘Nikes’ may display Ocean’s knack for cutting to the uncomfortable truths belying human affairs and needle the things left unsaid, the things that deal tension and discomfort into our relationships, but such emotional clarity is artfully obscured for much of Blond(e).
Ocean tempers himself and saves his most revealing lines for surprising moments, but ‘Nikes’ stands out for its tumbling, stream-of-conscious narrative. He’s otherwise fettered by fear or doubt, diverting his energy into drugs or nostalgia.
The drug use is anecdotal but also seeps into the album’s framework – the restlessness, the crystallising moments amid sensory dullness – while Ocean’s depictions of growing up in pre-Katrina New Orleans thrive on small details but are shrouded with mystique. He emerged so fully formed, aesthetically and musically, with Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange that it didn’t seem as if he belonged to a particular time and place, but he does really. The devastation that Katrina wrought on the Bayou adds to the sense that these insights into Ocean’s childhood are rare memories that cannot easily be revisited.
They’re tone poems that swell with evocative imagery: the barefoot aunt wrangling kids on ‘Alabama’; the sting of violence on ‘U-N-I-T-Y’ (both Endless); the lived-in minivan and urban legends that tail ‘Nights’ – all conspiring to deepen our understanding of the life Ocean left behind while keeping us on the outside looking in.
The notion of death seems most suffocating to Ocean in combination with pressure and fame, and so discomforting that it insists on intruding frequently. Endless begins in earnest with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ ‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’ recorded in memory of Aaliyah, the R&B soothsayer gone too soon. It will take your breath away with its deflating beauty, while the reference to fallen teenager Trayvon Martin (“RIP Trayvon / That nigga look just like me”) on ‘Nikes’ is just as shattering. A$AP Yams and UGK’s Pimp C, both of whom succumbed to lean addiction, the 27 Club (“No white lighters ‘til I fuck my 28th up”), 2Pac and Selena all receive mention as Ocean’s mind zeroes in on mortality.
Death is further explored to stunning effect on Endless’ ‘Wither’, a deceptively powerful number that is nudged into life with no more than four plucked chords and a breeze of appreciative humming. The other references Ocean makes are somewhat oblique, but here he is unrestrained, fearful and unapologetic. He yelps in need of reassurance that his children “see his colour” and “know he enjoyed sunshine” before it’s too late. He wants to be remembered and told he is important to somebody, as we all do. There’s no veil here; the song is diffuse and wispy but snaps into focus at its climax as Ocean states his case for immortality.
The fear is surely propelled by the sense of alienation that haunts Ocean’s relationships. Sometimes that lack of connection leaves him on the verge of tears (‘U-N-I-T-Y’), at others he seems more fatalistic and quite willing to accept that he is at the mercy of unseen external factors (‘Pink + White’). Hidden between two of Blond(e)’s peaks, ‘Good Guy’ captures this shrugging dissatisfaction and hits on the multiple personalities granted to us by life online.
“You text nothing like you look” is a killer line in service of a larger point about the chasm between perception and reality, between our curated and real selves. Ocean’s date instantly falls short of expectation on ‘Good Guy’, but dissatisfaction sets in far more insidiously elsewhere.
The gorgeous ‘White Ferrari’ centres on a silence that should be filled with feeling. Ocean’s voice is thick with sadness over an oscillating synth, and the song devolves into a collage of snippets as he speeds away from the inevitable toll. ‘Ivy’ is simple and sweet, taking in nothing more than a hazy guitar and poppy bass as he recalls a lost, young love with unmatched excitement. ‘Pink + White’, meanwhile, takes a slightly harder attitude but projects easy, sun-kissed LA soul in the vein of Channel Orange’s ‘Sweet Life’. It morphs into desperation on ‘Self Control’ as Ocean pleads for his lover to stay even as he recognises there’s no point. There’s a muffled wail of guitar that enhances the feeling as he asks the ill-advised question, and then the song reaches for a beautiful, spacious lift in lieu of contentment.
Blunt chimes alternate with wiry chords to introduce Blond(e)’s apex, ‘Nights’, another sprawling, multi-faceted opus, like ‘Nikes’ or ‘Pyramids’ but even more audacious and incongruous in its transfigurations – a galloping metal interlude jars with a slow, wary Drake/40-esque cut for instance. The song is Blond(e) in a microcosm, taking in the full thematic and stylistic range and weaving an alluring, vibrant tapestry with them.
In its mesmeric final act, Ocean sounds like he’s letting you in on a secret as he recalls an everyday scene from life before Katrina tore his status quo apart. His voice is garbled and his words overlap as the song reaches its emotional end. It’s difficult to decipher but one phrase stands out: “Wanna see Nirvana but don’t wanna die”.
It’s an idea that re-emerges on ‘Seigfried’, Blonde’s most important and narratively satisfying track. From its outset, it’s obvious something is different. Ocean’s voice is crystal clear, and he speaks in bold, descriptive statements. In light of how indirect he has been at times, it’s surprising to hear him blurt “I couldn’t gauge your fears / I can’t relate to my peers” or “Maybe I’m a fool / Maybe I should move and settle / Two kids and a swimming pool”.
Much of Blond(e) takes place in uncertain grey areas between selfish feeling and societal expectation, and to hear Frank reject the norm as “an idea from another man’s mind” is tremendously cathartic, but the self-examination extends beyond that.
He quotes another dead idol, Elliot Smith, as he attempts to separate himself from addiction. Psychedelic, melodramatic strings swirl around him in opposition, but they clear in a heady moment. “Speaking of Nirvana it was there”, he deadpans, as if spiritual resolution were as easy as breathing before resolving to be “less morose and more present” and submitting himself to his lover as penance and the gospel redemption of ‘Godspeed’ takes over.
Endless and Blond(e) reach more or less the same conclusion: that happiness is a conscious choice underpinned by acceptance of our flaws. It’s a hard-won wisdom as evidenced by the inner turmoil laid bare on both albums. The fears, the disappointments and even the distractions that set Ocean towards this revelation are there for all to see. The third of Endless that isn’t great is forgettable, and some of Blond(e)’s earlier tracks seem lightweight in comparison to the album’s more substantial high points, but both albums were worth the wait.