Midway through “Nikes,” the first single from Frank Ocean’s sophomore album, Blond, the song transforms suddenly into another song, swapping simple drums for intricate guitar, sky-pitched auto-tune for a total lack thereof, the abrupt shift in moods like color correcting neon orange to a mournful shade of blue. Four years have passed since the release of Channel Orange, Ocean’s classic, sun-drunk debut, an interval that’s proven monumental for the music industry. Streaming services like Tidal have become the dominant delivery system for listeners, with mp3 sales down nearly 50% from their 2012 peak. Blond streams exclusively on Apple Music, whose parent company has purportedly considered shutting down the iTunes Store, an unthinkable proposition even five years ago. For better and probably worse, a handful of multinational corporations now own and control access to an exponentially growing share of the world’s recorded music. Frank Ocean has, discounting a few sporadic guest features, excused himself from the spotlight during this period of industry tumult, and yet he emerges today no less radically changed. On Blonde, Ocean refuses to chase the very same trends his last record help to set. This sets him a ways apart from the rest of R&B. It also prevents him from fully reckoning with what first made his music extraordinary.
Technically, Blond isn’t the only long-play Ocean has released since Channel Orange. That trivial distinction belongs to Endless, last week’s gorgeously shot and boringly Warholian “visual album,” which sets ambient pop behind Ocean’s building of a stairway to either nowhere or heaven. As a lark, Endless is pleasant enough–Ocean has explicitly designated Blonde as Channel Orange‘s official follow-up, hedging against any presumptive dismissals of Endless as a standalone album–but the mere fact of its existence speaks to a general disunity in Ocean’s recent output. Boys Don’t Cry, the long-touted title of the second Frank Ocean album, has only partly been abandoned, appearing in a note on the musician’s Tumblr and on the cover of Blond‘s accompanying zine. That zine features a wholly different track list for Blonde, as well as a second alternate version of “Nikes” and a poem about McDonald’s written by Kanye West. In its scattershot roll out, West’s The Life of Pablo reflected both the fractured mentality of its creator and the collagist content of the album itself. Ocean may well be indecisive, but his album is anything but. Blonde is a mature and steady-handed R&B record, its music far more fascinating than the noise piped in to surround it.
Blond offers none of the nosebleed highs of Channel Orange (no pyramids interrupt the twilight desert of its landscape), but that may be intentional: the emotional architecture of the record is very horizontal, its rewards more hedge maze than rollercoaster. Less than half of the songs have any discernible beat, and Ocean fills most of the vacated space with piano, guitar, and layered vocals; the rest is basically silence. Frank Ocean has effectively made an R&B album that’s all blues and no rhythm, a collection of ballads in the age of bangers, and while it’s easier to admire than enjoy, pleasure isn’t absent from the proceedings. The narrowing of Ocean’s sonic focus has coincided with a proliferation with his influences. On Channel Orange, he sounded like a lovechild of Stevie Wonder and Fiona Apple who’d been raised on a diet of West Coast rap; here his inspirations are indier and, well, whiter. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood recorded guitars for multiple songs, most prominently on the glitchy second half of “Pretty Sweet.” David Bowie and Elliot Smith [sic] are name-checked in the linear notes; the end of “White Ferrari” could have appeared–god forbid–on Sufjan Steven’s unwritten concept album Lo, California! Forever Westward! Ocean is the rare musician whose homage feels too personal to label as thievery.
On the excellent “Solo,” Ocean sings, “It’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire/Inhale, in hell, there’s heaven/There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky/Inhale, in hell, there’s heaven.” For all its bombast, the song deftly conflates his personal artistic pressures with universal pressures, the feeling person’s need to escape an unfeeling world, how the self-imposed exile of solitude is often imposed by forces outside the self. Written and produced by Ocean, “Solo” feels like the most personal song on an album whose transparency borders on diaristic, a tale of sex for drugs and doomed connections that ends with Ocean, stoned and alone, waiting for a call that never comes, watching his cell phone die. It’s an earnest, modern image of loneliness, stripped of the cleverness that turned Forrest Gump into an avatar of romantic obsession. Ocean is glad to be away from the world, miserable he has no one to be away from it with. The process of recording Blond was likely four hellish, heavenly years of that. There’s a reason his church organs sound like they play for a congregation of one.
The defining characteristic of Blonde, the underlying cause of every artistic choice, within and without, is that this album was started by a boy and finished by a man. Its turn toward the reflective suggests a mature record, but it’s really a maturation record, a scrambled timeline that bridges Frank Ocean then and now. The boy on Blond is often too serious, the man on Blonde not unserious enough. But the ecstatic moments when they’re acting as they should–the uncaged vocals on the outro of “Self Control,” the start-stop guitars on “Nights,” every second of “Futura Free”–suggest that Ocean isn’t far from finding the right levels for each. There’s no sense in being upset in the meantime, particularly about an artist whose search for harmony captivates so. Boys don’t cry. Men do.
Final Strawberry Verdict: 4 Strawberries out of 5