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August 23, 2016 at 11:32 AM EDT
We gave it an A

Perhaps no record this decade has been as anticipated as Frank Ocean’s sequel to his 2012 breakthrough Channel Orange. For years, internet sleuths have been dissecting the enigmatic artist’s every move. Yet Ocean has confused them at every step, even releasing a surprise 45-minute visual album, Endless, two days before Blonde, which, intriguingly, is being promoted with both the masculine and feminine spellings of the word. So is the hype deserved? Definitely. With these 17 tracks, Ocean shows himself to be one of pop’s foremost innovators.

Like Channel Orange, Blonde has a stunning array of sounds: There’s cinematic soul (the Beyoncé-aided “Pink + White”), serene gospel (“Solo”), outré electronica (“Pretty Sweet”), steamy blues (“Self Control”) — even spoken-word segments (“Be Yourself”). High-profile collaborators also pitch in, from superproducer Rick Rubin to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to OutKast’s André 3000, who delivers an astounding verse on “Solo (Reprise).” Despite all that wattage, it’s Ocean’s message that strikes the deepest: Blonde reflects the anxieties many Americans might feel today, whether brought on by racial tension (“Nikes”), domestic uncertainty (“Seigfried”) or social media (“Facebook Story”). It’s ambitious, sure, but Ocean tackles those concepts with such strikingly intimate tunes, it feels as if you’re slyly scrolling through his texts.

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