On his surprisingly gentle, open, and profound new album, the R&B singer returns to a subject he’s explored since his first mixtape: time
When Frank Ocean released “Nikes” on Saturday, a sense of mystery and surprise lingered. “We’ll let you guys prophesy / We gon’ see the future first”, he sings on the second verse. The magical words opened up limitless potential meanings, but it wasn’t until Blonde finally dropped in the early hours of Sunday morning that it became clear what Ocean meant. It concerns a subject that the R&B singer has explored across his music ever since he released nostalgia, ULTRA: time.
On channel ORANGE, Ocean was thinking about forever, but in the case of Blonde he mourns lost time because it can never be reclaimed. Call it pathetic fallacy if you want, but it’s hard not to hear Blonde without thinking about the album as an evocation of fading summer and missed opportunities. “This is joy, this is summer”, he sings on “Skyline To”. With the album arriving in late August, autumn just around the corner, these types of exultant days will become fewer, and the sorrow, to the listener, is that our perception of seasonal changes diminishes with age. “It begins to blur, we get older (Blur!) / Summer ain't as long as it used to be,” he and Kendrick Lamar sing later on in the same song. We’ll all be singing “That's a pretty fucking fast year flew by” come December 31.
“On channel ORANGE, Ocean was thinking about forever, but in the case of Blonde he mourns lost time because it can never be reclaimed”
Blonde’s surface is enough to give you an impression of its sound: it’s meditative, wistful, and reflective, and soundtracks the return of recent memories as distinctively familiar as Frank’s warm voice. It may be an abstract image of youth (like on “Pink + White”) or an exploration of past mistakes (like on “Ivy”: “We didn't give a fuck back then / I ain't a kid no more / We’ll never be those kids again”), but the pictures appear lucidly through Frank’s sonic architecture. The most memorable parts of the album are often the most simple: the backing guitars of “Self Control” and the organs of “Solo”, for example, which elevate acoustic and electric matter over digital. The serenity and simplicity of Blonde recalls, perhaps not accidentally, The Beatles – they’re credited as writers on the mellow “White Ferrari” and the contemplative “Seigfried”. (50 years ago The Beatles also released the gold-tinged Revolver, which demonstrated the same patience and composure that Ocean would employ post-channel ORANGE, with the band logging over 300 hours in the studio to create it.)
In the years between channel ORANGE and Blonde, it seems that Ocean has lived and grown a lot. Some of Blonde’s songs talk about the lessons he’s learned in this time and his journey of self-discovery. This is perhaps made most clear on closing track “Futura Free”, where Ocean utters the final words of the album: “How far is a light year?” The line asks Ocean (as well as his brother and his friends, who are interviewed on the song) to reflect on how far they’ve come, and what they’ve learned since the days of working “on my feet for $7 an hour”. Compared to a light year, those years mean nothing – it’s what you do with that time that’s significant. In Ocean’s case, that’s learning carpentry to build a staircase, or writing a screenplay (as appears in his Boys Don’t Cry magazine). The process of self-discovery can give you unique insights into your character, and it occurs over a given period – what Blonde seems to say is that the days will pass smoothly if you take the time to learn self-worth and love what you do.
For a major artist in Ocean’s position, a traditional and conventional approach to his art seems like the most natural and maybe even only way that he can create. In 2016, we’re used to ‘appointment listening’ and the album release-as-spectacle, but Ocean still chooses to work at his own pace. It’s a necessary calm in a frenetic world, and it pours out from Ocean across the album. His personal expression and his openness is a gift to others, and his rigorous self-control allows him to open up when he needs to; it's why the tongue-in-cheek overdue library card, zen-like staircase-building, and the poignancy of “Ivy” (a song about Ocean’s first love, which may refer to his coming-out letter in 2012) leaves such an impression.
“It’s hard not to hear Blonde without thinking about the album as an evocation of fading summer and missed opportunities”
Now seems like the perfect time for Frank Ocean to return and to reflect on the months passed. As we enter the darker months of the year, it's worth remembering how major artists delivered their albums in 2016: Rihanna and James Blake dumped their records unexpectedly, Radiohead and Drake set dates and times for theirs, and Kanye and Beyoncé both provided televised events before their roll-outs. All of these were released in the first half of 2016 to the point where the surprise album became a predictable strategy for big hitters. Ocean isn’t above such gimmicks, but with a partiality to secrecy and oblique references, Blonde delivers the possibility of the unexpected and ability to astonish in a year when big news and teasers are ubiquitous.
Blonde may not have the same impact as channel ORANGE, but it doesn't need to. Ocean is the writer of his own narrative – that is to say, a Frank Ocean album doesn’t need to be anything other than a Frank Ocean album. The measure of Blonde is a surprisingly gentle, open, and profound work at odds with the current climate. While it certainly makes up for lost time, its instant legacy may remain to be seen. Ocean may continue to withdraw from the on-demand, always-on culture. If so, the only thing he asks of us is a small request found on “Self-Control”: “Keep a place for me, for me / I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing”.