Reflecting On One of the Greatest Albums Ever Made
I laid down in the dark as 'Nikes' first washed over me. Five years ago to this day, I heard those auras of soft contemplation haloing over "good discussion" and "pink-gold lemonades," stripped-back, minimalist, yet saying so much in the spaces between carefully constructed sketches of loss, desire and detachment. On that warm summer night, Frank Ocean made his return from the wilderness, but with Blonde the artist's re-emergence showed itself not as a follow-up, but as a metamorphosis, and the creation of a true masterpiece.
2016 had sat in a deafening silence. Four years on from the immaculate Channel Orange, rising anticipation for Ocean's next album built to an unimaginable intensity for a sophomore release. A July 2015 release date for an album then known as Boys Don't Cry passed by, with little indication of precisely what lay in store for the Odd Future alum's next record. Then, it arrived - or so it seemed. On the 19th August, Endless appeared. An album accompanied by monochrome visuals of staircase-construction and images of Ocean sawing planks of wood. Though re-appraisal has now recognised the album as a compelling project, initial responses ranged largely between perplexment and disappointment. It swam in lakes of soaked reverb, complimented by some of Ocean's strongest vocal performances, but lacked the gripping construction of Channel Orange and its vibrant portraiture of youth, love and uncertainty.
Perhaps with more time in the spotlight Endless could've fought back against unfair declarations of it being an underwhelming release, but in the end it never had to. In truth, Endless was only ever a prelude. An overture, designed to side-step his record deal with Def Jam before unfurling Frank Ocean's masterpiece immediately after. Few album releases have ever come so dramatically. With Endless as an ambient prelude of sorts, as the immediacy of 'Nikes' whirred into life, Blonde finally revealed itself to the world. More accessible than Endless's obscurities, as mentions of Melo chasing his ring rang out, almost instantly it too proved clear that the straight-forward R&B soul-bearing of Channel Orange would not find itself replicated here. Celestial pads and pitch-shifted vocals intertwined against cerebrations still so vivid in design:
"I'm not him, but I'll mean something to you [...]
You got a roommate, he'll hear what we do
It's only awkward if you're fucking him too"
Blonde retained Channel Orange's astonishing lyricism, paired with constant reminders of Ocean's virtuosic vocal ability, but as Blonde slowly played its hand, any comparisons to Ocean's debut proved less and less clear. Much of the album floated across entirely devoid of percussion, 'Be Yourself' channelled a mother's voicemail as 'Facebook Story' and 'Futura Free' dedicated even more time to spoken recordings, soundtracked by unassuming soundscape layers. Still, there were moments that channelled the Orange flame, continuing funk/R&B fusions through 'Pink + White' and the sampling of Stevie Wonder's vocoded brilliance on 'Close To You'. More so than ever, Blonde showed Frank Ocean moving beyond simply assembling his influences together. With this record a sound unique to Ocean himself found form - one built from a million different places, but with total cohesion.
Blonde as a work of art resists attempts to distil it to one overarching feeling. Is it a happy album? One drenched in melancholy? It reflects, turning its eyes backwards to memories of "trees to blow through, but it's just me and no you", but still manages to encapsulate a timeless relevance. Like Channel Orange before it, Frank Ocean's second album captured a zeitgeist in a time of real upheaval. The history books might well divide the early 21st century into "before 2016 and after", but in the paradoxes of attachment and isolation that internet hyper-connectivity accelerated in the 2010s, Blonde still feels particularly resonant. Even in recounting moments specifically rooted in the mid-2000s, it is in Ocean's matter-of-fact deliverance of emotionality that Blonde ends up saying something so relatable in the midst of hyper-specific biography:
"After 'Trina hit I had to transfer campus
Your apartment out of Houston's where I waited
Staying with you when I didn't have a address
Fucking on you when I didn't own a mattress
Working on a way to make it out of Texas, every night"
With 'Nights', seen by many as Ocean's true magnum opus, somehow in delving deep into his own story the artist provides a moment that feels so recognisable, even when it shouldn't. Perhaps that is where Frank Ocean's genius truly lies. Despite the masterpiece that is 'Nights' and its now iconic beat-switch, it is this lyrical passage that has stuck most resiliently with me. I've never set foot in Texas, I only encountered Hurricane Katrina through news broadcasts from thousands of miles away, but somehow still this island of respite is one that listeners can tether themselves to; to recognise.
In its final quarter, Blonde seemed determined to ascend to the highest peak of what an album can achieve. Where Channel Orange was an album of songs woven together with thematic purpose, this record pushed forward even further in the creation of a cohesive masterpiece, and in its final moments the record dispensed even further with accessibility. Long, introspective musings across 'White Ferrari', 'Seigfried', 'Godspeed' and 'Futura Free' brought Blonde to a close with announcements of "I let go of my claim on you / it's a free world" and an open declaration of joy:
"Play these songs, it's therapy, mama,
They paying me, mama,
I should be paying them,
I should be paying y'all honest to God"
It's an exercise in honesty and vulnerability, loading an astonishingly mature album with episodes of lyrical intimacy in a project simultaneously colossal and absurdly minimalistic. It remains quiet, almost shy in its effortless brilliance, as pristine instrumentation and a chorus of incredible collaborators cascade against one another. Across each minute, the reinvention of Frank Ocean from a prodigy to a maestro was one rooted in embracing the personal, and truly harnessing the power of familiarity. Through inviting listeners in, past the clinical prologue of Endless and towards the shower head of Blonde, 2016 brought forward a work of transcendent genius at once elevating the artist to legendary status, and yet making him all the more human. He remains an indisputably ambiguous superstar, but through loosening his guard on Blonde the brilliance of Frank Ocean shone all the brighter, gifting the world one of the few records that deserves to be called what it is and has always been: a perfect album.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture website created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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