5 first-listen highlights from Frank Ocean's long-awaited 'Blonde'
The 28-year-old R&B star's second album in as many days is a star-studded tour de force
Frank Ocean returned Saturday night with his second project in less than 48 hours. After four years without an album, the 28-year-old R&B star had broken his drought early Friday with Endless, a subdued collection of 18 brief musical sketches paired with a 45-minute black-and-white film depicting his construction of a staircase to nowhere.
Blonde — the album Ocean has reportedly teased for more than a year as Boys Don’t Cry — is something else entirely. Where the music featured in Endless was light on lyrics and heavy on vibe, Ocean’s writing on Blonde is verbose and strikingly personal. It’s a startling about-face for the man considered to be one of pop’s most mysterious figures.
From its spoken interludes to its subject matter, Ocean covers plenty of the same ground on Blonde as he did on his 2012 masterpiece Channel Orange. But he also manages to skillfully integrate a variety of new sounds — no thanks to the eminent list of collaborators he shared in Blonde‘s corresponding Boys Don’t Cry magazine. Read on for EW’s first-listen highlights from the long-awaited project.
Ocean recruited a staggering roster of collaborators.
Boys Don’t Cry, the magazine Ocean released in four pop-up shops Saturday night, contains Blonde‘s contributors — and they put the guest lists for other prominent 2016 albums, like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, to shame. West and Beyoncé are both credited, as are other contemporary heavyweights such as Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams (who produced “Sweet Life” on Channel Orange). Elsewhere, Ocean turned to both established legends (OutKast’s Andre 3000, superproducer Rick Rubin, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) and talents at the forefront of the indie sphere (Vampire Weekend alum Rostam Batmanglij, Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman, electronic artists James Blake and Jamie xx). Longtime Odd Future cohort Tyler, the Creator is also listed.
Some of the names included clearly stem from interpolations or samples rather than new collaborations — Ocean reimagines the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” and Elliott Smith’s “A Fond Farewell” for “White Ferrari” and “Seigfried,” respectively — and the role of others, like Brian Eno and David Bowie, remains ambiguous. Likely by design, Ocean still hadn’t provided credits for specific tracks as of Sunday afternoon.
The immediately discernible guests deliver.
Two of the highest-profile collaborators on Blonde — Beyoncé and Andre 3000 — are easily distinguishable. Ocean featured on Bey’s “Superpower” off her 2013 self-titled effort, and here she returns the favor, albeit in an unusual way. On the blissful “Pink + White,” Yoncé isn’t audible for the first half of the song — and when she comes in, it isn’t as the lead vocalist, but as the most overqualified backing singer of all-time. Her harmonies with Ocean predictably astound.
In contrast, Andre 3000 (memorably featured on Channel Orange‘s “Pink Matter”) is given his own 79-second track, “Solo (Reprise).” The rare guest verse — the only other song Three Stacks has appeared on this year is West’s “30 Hours” — is short in duration, but positively loaded with content thanks to the rapper’s machine-gun flow. Over a quirky piano part, the OutKast member touches on police brutality and issues a warning shot to MCs who don’t write their own verses: “After 20 years in, I’m so naive I was under the impression that everyone wrote they own verses.”
Guitars define Blonde.
From the booming synths on “Pyramids” to the shimmering, Stevie-inspired keys on “Sweet Life,” Channel Orange brimmed with maximalist instrumental textures. Blonde doesn’t jettison sonic flair completely — the rippling R&B of “Pink + White” or the dissonant synth washes on “Pretty Sweet,” for example — but its most distinctive moments are characterized largely by Ocean’s voice and simple guitars. The modulating riffs on “Ivy,” the blues flourishes on “Self Control,” and the Beatles-interpreting arpeggios on “White Ferrari” all allow Ocean’s vocals and lyrics to hover at the forefront. The effect is more than just aesthetic: With less dense arrangements, Blonde instantly establishes itself as Ocean’s most intimate work yet.
Blonde is a lyrical tour de force.
Andre 3000’s reference to police violence — “When I hear that another kid is shot by the popo it ain’t an event” — is only one of Blonde‘s numerous references to current events. “R.I.P. Trayvon,” Ocean sings on opener “Nikes” (in the track’s video, shared Saturday morning, the singer holds a portrait of the slain Florida teen), adding he “look just like me.” And on “Nights,” Ocean references “shooters killing left and right.”
But Blonde doesn’t skimp on the personal narratives that have always been central to Ocean’s work. “If I could see through walls, I could see you’re faking,” Ocean intones on “Ivy.” “If you could see my thoughts, you would see our faces.” And on “Seigfried,” he apprehensively looks toward the future: “Maybe I’m a fool, maybe I should move / And settle, two kids and a swimming pool / I’m not brave.”
For all the anxiety, Blonde is a hell of a stoner album.
Longtime listeners of Ocean know he’s one of modern music’s greatest cannabis champions; just revisit lyrics like “Smoke a gram of that haze / Bro, easy on that ounce, that’s a lot for a day / But just enough for a week” off Odd Future’s 2012 posse cut “Oldie.” In Blonde‘s first spoken interlude, “Be Yourself,” a woman — presumably Ocean’s mom, or someone meant to be her — warns against marijuana’s ills: “When people become weed-heads they become sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned.”
Nevertheless, Ocean pays tribute to the herb often on Blonde, but not in the dispensable, surface-level way many musicians do. “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire,” goes the emotive chorus of “Solo.” “Inhale, inhale, that’s heaven.” On “Nights,” he declares, “Rolling marijuana, that’s a cheap vacation.” Other substances appear on Blonde, too, like when Ocean references eating “some shrooms, maybe have a good cry, about you” on “Seigfried” or how he’s “Gone off tabs of that acid” on “Solo.”