By Thomas Infante
Frank Ocean has become somewhat of an enigma of the music industry. His first album, 2012’s “Channel Orange,” received rave reviews, earning Ocean a Grammy Award and several nominations. While Ocean has never conformed to a single genre, his music so far has been best categorized as a blend of hip-hop and R&B. But with the release of his latest album, “Blonde,” Ocean experiments further with his music, while finding inspiration in introspection.
Ocean’s instrumentals have always sounded clean and pretty, which compliments his sentimental lyrics. He takes this sound quality a step further on “Blonde,” as many of the songs on this album have an ethereal quality to them — instruments and background vocals are wrapped in effects or distortion.
At times, such layers of music are a jarring departure from Ocean’s previous R&B-centric style. However, a majority of the album is catchy, and both Ocean’s singing and rapping are passionate and unfailing.
The track “Ivy” features Ocean singing over dreamy, aquatic guitars sounds. His lyrics reflect on a failed relationship from his adolescent years. “I ain’t a kid no more / We’ll never be those kids again.” His lyrics are mature, and he ends the chorus by saying, “It’s quite all right to hate me now / but we both know that deep down, the feeling still deep down is good.”
Rather than bitterly regret the end of the relationship, he is glad he was able to experience something so beautiful during such important, formative years of his life.
The track “Solo” is similar in tone. Musically, it is very simple, with only a droning synthesizer to compliment Ocean’s vocals. It is minimalist to the point that it can sound like background music if it wasn’t for Ocean’s captivating singing and clever lyricism. He alternates between saying “solo” — as in single — and “so low,” as if he needs to get high. He also references his use of drugs like marijuana to escape the difficulties of life: “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire / Inhale, in hell there’s heaven,” he sings on the track.
There are also several short skits on the album that drive home Ocean’s overall message in “Blonde.” The first is titled “Be Yourself,” and it features a spoken word recording of Frank’s mother advising against using drugs just to fit in with others. At first, this seems odd and out of place, since Ocean himself has frequently referenced drug usage in his own music. However, it fits into the more mature attitude that Ocean now retains, as he was able to recognize what his mother said about peer-pressure holds merit, even though he hasn’t always taken her advice.
Another one of these skits is titled “Facebook Story” in which a man talks about how his girlfriend thought he was cheating on her because he didn’t accept her Facebook friend request, despite spending time together in person every day. It is a poignant 21st century anecdote and shows how easily one can become obsessed with the imaginary and intangible world wide web, causing one to lose sight of what is truly important in the process.
A highlight from the album is the song titled “Solo (Reprise),” which features a terrifically powerful verse from rapper André 3000, who has one of the few prominent guest appearances on the entire album. His performance is thought-provoking and his lyrics criticize society, which fits nicely into the theme of the album. “I can admit / When I hear that another kid is shot by the popo it ain’t an event no more,” he raps, echoing the sentiment shared by many other Americans whose ideas about police violence have grown jaded and pessimistic.
Most of the other collaborations are very subtle, such as Beyoncé’s accompanying vocals on the orchestral “Pink and White.” On many modern hip-hop albums, rappers often have a multitude of featured artists on each song. With “Blonde,” however, Ocean did quite the opposite, focusing the album on himself. Even the instrumentals, while often beautiful and melodic, serve as only a backdrop to Ocean’s singing, rapping and lyricism.
Perhaps Ocean’s best song on the album is “Nights,” which begins with an upbeat celebration of hedonism. Ocean raps, “If I get my money right, you know I won’t need you / I’m fuckin’, no I’m fucked up / Spend it when I get that.” Halfway through the song, the beat, along with Ocean’s singing, transitions to be much softer and contemplative. He sings, “Every night fucks every day up / Every day patches the night up,” as he reflects on his exhausting and destructive lifestyle.
Ocean’s approach to “Blonde” shows his focus and maturity over all else. Within a culture and genre of music that has so heavily been reliant on trends and recognizable production, Ocean delivered a refreshing and touching project that truly inspires hope for what his music can achieve in the future.