“I got two versions… I got twooo versions…” he posted in July of 2015. A curious promise. Millions of fans, including myself, took it to mean an album was coming. I was overjoyed. Channel Orange meant so much to me and so many others. The word of our idol, our prophet, Frank Ocean, would be along soon.
When the first of August came around, with no album, I was disappointed but optimistic. Yet it still gnawed at me. What’s going on? Did I do something wrong? Why won’t you reply?
When I first saw that text – “Frank dropped the album!” – I was apprehensive. I didn’t want to get hurt again. But when I saw his shielded face, and his dyed fluorescent green hair with my own eyes, I couldn’t help myself. All was forgiven.
I wonder if I could have disliked this album. The first time I listened, I was not really digesting; I was gorging myself, so hungry for new Frank that I didn’t bother to notice the taste. But time has passed, and I’ve listened to it a lot. And I’ve concluded: regardless of the wait, regardless of the hype – Frank Ocean has composed a profoundly good album.
Technically speaking, the album is faultless, with the production, the transitions, the pacing, and the narrative. The more compelling thing about this album, however, is its intention as a work of art.The sound of the album is distinct and cohesive. Reverberant organs and acoustic guitars figure throughout the album. They carry such songs as “Good Guy” and “Ivy,” evoking a classic sound. Other songs, notably “White Ferrari,” are based on a synth; however, even that yields to a strummed acoustic halfway through the song. Contrasting musical elements balance and complement each other, creating a sound that is varied, yet insular.
Frank Ocean is a storyteller. He proves his narrative dexterity on “Nights,” switching seamlessly between narrators and points in time. In a flashback, he paints the setting with references to New Orleans and Katrina, even shouting out the Acura his family owned in 1998. It’s these details that add depth to the story.
But it’s also the sound of the music. On “Self Control” and “Nights,” he pitches up the vocals to suggest a younger narrator, a younger Frank. On “Nikes,” the same effect de-genders the narrator, adding a layer of ambiguity.
Beneath the instruments, birds chirp on both “Pink + White” and “Skyline To,” adding to the atmosphere of each song. He has expanded his storytelling apparatus to include sound, which enhances the mood of the album.
Joyce Carol Oates once said: “The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.” A similar sentiment is true for music, but not to the same extent. For a work to succeed requires precision and intent. Today, however, music need not be substantive. But this is crucial for music. The most powerful thing about it is the emotional immediacy.
And so, it’s more difficult to sing a song about, say, a moth, and elicit the same response as a song about heartbreak. Similarly, songs about money, drugs, and dispassionate sex often fail to rattle our emotions. Art requires honest observation of meaningful ideas.
This is why Ocean is so revered. He’s an artist, in the purest sense of the word. He seeks to grasp, with unusual clarity, the integrity of a thing, and to shine light upon it for the person experiencing the art. He unlocks his mind, he bears his soul. He is honest. And that is beautiful. Beauty is truth.
Blonde explores love and time, and their lovechild, nostalgia. An essay by Ocean offers insight into the album’s themes. “Boys do cry,” he wrote, “but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years.” The tears finally fall. “It’s surprisingly my favorite part of my life so far,” he continued. “Surprising, to me, because this current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid.” This isn’t just a typical reaction to success. For Ocean, it is more profound. It’s not just the hoggish vulture hopping around his yard, or any of the many people who look to him expectantly. It’s that concept, sure, but more abstract: what really troubles him is the loss of authenticity.
The pain of love, and living, is an authentic part of the human experience. Is it possible to return to that normalcy, in all its pain and joy? Or is fame absolute? I think he misses those days of hurt and sorrow. Because they were real.
At least that’s what I get from the album. You may find something totally different. The album isn’t any one thing. But the fact that we can derive, interpret, and feel so much, from a single testament – a single truth – is testament to the fact that this is art.