“I HAD THE TIME OF MY LIFE MAKING ALL OF THIS,” Frank Ocean wrote on his Tumblr following the surprise-ish release of Blonde. “THANK YOU ALL. ESPECIALLY THOSE OF YOU WHO NEVER LET ME FORGET I HAD TO FINISH. WHICH IS BASICALLY EVERY ONE OF YA’LL. HAHA. LOVE YOU.”
It’s the least cryptic Blonde-related thing Ocean’s released, but it’s also a reminder that he’s a deceptively fantastic writer. In just a few short sentences, Frank Ocean frames Blonde (otherwise known as Blond, formerly known as Boys Don’t Cry, widely regarded as the most anticipated album of the past, what, four years?). He owns up to the album’s numerous false starts, explains them without explaining them, disarms any residual bitterness from fans feeling stung by the album’s tardiness and reassures everyone that the wait was worth it.
At least, in Frank’s own estimation it was. Whether or not it will be for you is in the ear of the beholder, but regardless, it has been a wait. But Blonde is lovely. It’s a swirling, sensual, glittery haze of kush smoke, alienation, lovelorn regret and fleeting youth. Considering the massive amounts of hype surrounding it, it’s also a slow burn, without many real fireworks. Ocean can write eminently singable melodies and immediately danceable club grooves in his sleep (before he was a recording artist, he was doing just that for the likes of Justin Bieber and Beyonce), but he’s written almost none here. Which isn’t to say the melodies aren’t very pretty. They are. But don’t expect YouTube to be awash in acoustic covers anytime soon.
Blonde is a quieter animal than Channel Orange, dressing its pop hooks in avant-garde guitar peals and meandering beats. There’s no “Thinking Bout You” or “Super Rich Kids.” Of all Channel Orange’s tracks, Blonde probably has the most in common structurally with “Forest Gump.” Melodically, it has more in common with James Blake and Jamie xx (both of whom are listed as contributors). The album weaves through your consciousness, rewarding attention without demanding it. It’s a pleasant headphone album until it isn’t, interjecting its loveliest melodies with startling bursts of experimental noise or a lyric that cuts like a diamond. “I’m not brave,” Ocean yelps on the Elliott Smith-aping “Seigfried,” and it lands like a slap.
Blonde is the sort of album music critics like to describe with words like “challenging,” but that doesn’t feel quite right. This album is too pretty to be challenging. If there’s a challenge, it’s in listening past the pleasantness of the melodies to mine the real riches. It takes a few spins to catch Kendrick Lamar’s quiet contributions to “Skyline To” or the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” hook in the lovely “White Ferrari.” It’d be easy to get so lost in “Pink + White”’s strolling, plunking beat that you wouldn’t even notice that’s Beyonce humming along in the background.
So, no, it’s not really a challenging listen, but it’s also not the sort of album that would garner it’s current level of critical attention if not for Channel Orange, which proved Ocean was one to watch. Ocean, like many artists before him, had to earn the right to release an album like this — an album without any big, gooey singles.
But Frank Ocean has always been a musician’s musician. He’s an incredible talent and in the tradition of other incredible talents, he’s more inclined to trust his own idiosyncrasies than the tastes of the general public. His warm, pleasing voice disguises one fact that would otherwise be a huge talking point about Blonde: a lot of it is weird af.
At least some of that is owing to Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, who’s behind Blonde’s misshapen guitar swirls. Greenwood knows a thing or two about creating music more as a way of exorcising your own creative demons than creating a conversation with the pop-music-listening masses. Of course, Radiohead also had an uncanny ability to marry their wildest experimentation with commercial appeal, and that’s something Frank Ocean seems mostly uninterested in here.
Pop music appears to be headed this direction. Beyonce’s Lemonade, Rihanna’s ANTI, Kanye’s Life of Pablo, Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Drake’s Views were all likewise more introspective affairs with little to offer radios and clubs. The public’s reaction thus far has been one of cautious trust that rewarded these more difficult albums insofar as they deserved it. Lemonade did. So did To Pimp a Butterfly. Views and Life of Pablo were less successful. Blonde falls somewhere between the two, but it signals something interesting nevertheless: Pop stars are growing less interested in pop music.