Once upon a time, back in the mid-90s, there was the legendary D’angelo, an R&B star who was renowned for creating music that was sophisticated, classy, and iconically sensual. However, after being uncomfortable with becoming a sex symbol and living a life riddled with personal issues, he eventually took a musical hiatus. A hiatus that lasted fourteen years, to be exact, until he released Black Messiah, a record that still demonstrated that he still has the knack for making music that was funky, soulful, and especially seductive. Despite D’angelo’s extremely prolonged disappearance from the public eye, the consensus of his return was crystal clear: Black Messiah was undoubtedly worth the wait.
Which brings us to another black artist who has been missing from the face of the planet for the past several years: Frank Ocean. Yes, the man who has been responsible for those many memes scattered across the Internet every time he didn’t keep his promises to release his next record.
The story behind the man? Frank Ocean’s first notable release, nostalgia, ULTRA, was a well-received mixtape that helped him garner a fair share of attention before he released his magnum opus channel ORANGE just a year later, which was incessantly praised for its elaborate storytelling, spirited production, and emotional delivery. It went so far to be named “the best album of 2012” by certain media outlets and helped Frank Ocean earn two Grammys that same year.
Then, at the limelight of his career, he suddenly vanished from the face of the planet. People were literally tearing the hairs off their head of what seemed like the disappearance of one of the world’s greatest contemporary R&B artists. His silence even got certain media outlets jokingly questioning whether or not Frank Ocean even existed in the first place, and a select group of fans have even decided to voice their frustration on Twitter and even create clever pictures that make evident that Frank Ocean had better release his sophomore effort quickly. It especially didn’t help that he eventually teased the album, titled Boys Don’t Cry, and claimed that it would be released in July 2015, but its eventual absence spurred more instances of outrage by fans, and the impatience got even worse (as seen in this picture here).
But like D’angelo, it can only be assumed that Frank Ocean was preparing something spectacular in the works. Though there had been rumors that this album may not even come to existence in the first place, there was proof that he was in the studio – and now that it has been released, it can only be assumed that during those past four gruelingly soundless years, Frank Ocean must have been creating something worth the wait.
Well, Blonde (yes, it’s not called Boys Don’t Cry) is certainly good, as expected. Frank Ocean does deliver his usual brand of intricate storytelling and moving vocal performances, but the most notable change in Blonde since channel ORANGE is the production. While channel ORANGE was extremely eclectic in styles, including psychedelic, pop-soul, electro-funk, Blonde seems to be mostly made of tracks that stick with the typical sonic soundscapes of alternative R&B. Of course, while there are some questionable choices in instrumentation and production, such as the suffocating, cacophonic introduction of “Pretty Sweet” and the jumbled closing paired with screeching vocals at the end of “Ivy”, the lucid ambience that permeates throughout Blonde does amplify and bring focus to Frank Ocean’s intricately emotional performances, which has always been his forte. The simple organs of “Solo”, the electronic guitar of “Skyline To” that sounds like something out of a King Krule record, the organic swells in the interlude of “Self Control”, the gorgeous strings that appear in the middle of “Seigfried” – they’re not as complex in terms of instrumentation, but they do contribute to the overall emotional complexities that Frank Ocean is trying to deliver.
But while the dreaminess of Blonde’s production is a surprising welcome to certain listeners who are fans of a miasmic brand of R&B, the album feels just as formless as a whole when it comes to its arc. While channel ORANGE was clearly a descriptive narrative, with “Pyramids” serving as its narrative transition into the emotionally dense second half of the record, Blonde feels more like an assemblage of singles that seem more cohesive in style than in story. Of course, the usual interludes in between several of the tracks do form some connections, and the story is clearly still there. However, every good story requires clean transitions, and the narrative flow in Blonde is not as strong as his 2012 effort. Even the album closer “Futura Free” sort of meanders, as it follows his reflection on life in a stream of consciousness style.
But this isn’t to say that Blonde is bad at all; while the narrative is more cohesive in channel ORANGE, the ambient compositions of Blonde may tug a little harder since it does present Frank Ocean’s most emotional performances to date. How Blonde compares to its predecessor is up to the listener, but it doesn’t change the fact that Blonde is still a rewarding, dreamy listening experience – and, like Black Messiah, it was worth the wait.
Notable Tracks: “Solo”, “Self Control”, “Skyline To”, “White Ferrari”, “Seigfried”, “Godspeed (Ft. Kim Burrell)”