The Lessons We Can Learn From Frank Ocean's Blonde
A meditation on sexual identity, self-control, and autonomy.
BY Matt Miller | Aug 24, 2016 | Music
On Monday morning I learned about the two spellings of "blonde." Lost again in Frank Ocean's curiously calm new album, I ran into a colleague on the way to work who pointed out that I'd been spelling the album with an E at the end, based on how it's listed in iTunes as opposed to the sans-E spelling on the cover. He told me that, in French, "blond" is masculine while "blonde" is feminine. It's yet another layer, a detail hidden in plain sight (for me at least), added to an album that's ambiguous about gender by an artist who refuses to define his own sexuality.
On an album of mostly love songs, the recipient and cause of Ocean's heartache is often an unidentified individual referred to in second person. It's an anonymous "you" who in the tragic early-morning heartache of "Solo" is "now your baby momma" and in "Good Guy" brought him to a gay bar. On "Self Control," Ocean is "the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight." And in his own wavering voice on Ivy, Ocean seems to be blindsided by his own sexuality, and the confusion it can cause:
I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me / It started from nothing / I had no chance to prepare / I couldn't see you coming
His companion magazine, Boys Don't Cry (the original title of the album), contains nude photos of both men and women. As he's planned for years, going back to his original Tumblr post about the magazine, Ocean released his album, in part, through a physical medium by giving it away for free at pop-up shop in a bodega. This is all Ocean, independent of any social and industry expectations.
Which leads to the autonomy Ocean has displayed throughout the entire writing, promotion, marketing, recording, and release of Blonde. Rarely in the entertainment industry does an artist maintain such staunch individuality. For more than four years, Ocean avoided celebrity status, establishing his own personal boundaries, keeping his private life as such, protecting his writing/recording process, and, most frustrating (whether deserved or not for fans, at least), produced music on his own time. As he says on "Futura Free": "I ain't on your schedule / I ain't on no schedule / I ain't had me a job since 2009." Never once did he succumb to celebrity or industry demands. And artistically speaking, it's truly refreshing to see this reflected in his music.
Most obviously, this comes on the album as an interlude titled "Be Yourself" in which a woman—someone's mother, possibly Ocean's—tells her child to stay away from drugs and alcohol, a parent projecting their own version of individuality on the young adult. Naturally, Ocean doesn't listen; in the next song, he's taking acid, blowing trees.
This extends to the overall consistent tone of Blonde. It's a stripped down album that abandons the glittering production of modern hip-hop and R&B for weary guitars and forlorn organs. Under immense pressure from the overall industry, Ocean avoided making his 2012 breakout album Channel Orange all over again. In fact, aside from his own casually wandering vocals, lonely bends in melody and clever turns of phrase (I can't get over the chorus in "Solo," which could be "inhale, inhale there's Heaven" or "in Hell, in Hell there's Heaven," or maybe even both), he avoided making an album anyone expected. How easy would it have been to repeat Channel Orange? How easy would it have been for an artist as widely loved as Ocean to create a 17 tracks ready for the radio, for Billboard charts, for car commercials? That takes self-control, and, more importantly, for all his lyrical self-doubt and confusion, it takes immense confidence in one's art.
On Blonde, Ocean's lyrics and masterful talent as a songwriter are louder than any neat studio tricks. Yes, the production is beautiful, awake, and layered, but it's subtle and wry. Where traditional pop music, even from some of music's most talented artists, requires a clear verse-chorus structure, Ocean's songs on Blonde flow as naturally as his words. His influences and collaborators show now restriction to genre lines—easily referencing Elliott Smith, The Beatles, and providing a place for Andre 3000 to vocalise his most stunning verse in a decade. Ocean even spells some of these artist's names his own way. What's incredible is among this list of some of the most influential musicians of our time, Ocean manages to be the driving force of Blonde. Consider Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, where nearly entire tracks from Chance the Rapper, Desiigner, and others create the bulk of the content.
To contrast it with West's TLOP again, Ocean's Blonde is a singular vision, one that maintains a consistent tone throughout, never succumbing to the frenetic desires of musical trends and genre influencers—or, even, the desire to be at the forefront of these. Where West demands the spotlight, Ocean hides from it; where West is obsessed with his artistic power, Ocean seems uninterested in it. If anything, this album is more closely comparable to Radiohead's patient A Moon Shaped Pool than anything on the R&B or hip-hop spectrum. In fact, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood contributed to Blonde, and his influence is likely apparent in the lush guitar and orchestral work (though no song-by-song credits have been released).
Ocean's album has a lucid clarity to it, like one of those rare mornings where you wake up from a dream and remember every detail—like some sort of Sunday nirvana.
Ocean's album has a lucid clarity to it, like one of those rare mornings where you wake up from a dream and remember every detail—like some sort of Sunday nirvana. Things are said both consciously and subconsciously. There's text (like the story of the French guy whose girlfriend broke up with him because he wouldn't accept her Facebook friend request) and there's subtext (like the repeated power of fleeting personal, physical, and spiritual connections to other humans). There are lessons to be learned in this album that I hadn't considered could be taught through music. It's not perfect, but it's a unique experience, one that I'm glad I waited four years to have. Would I have been mature enough for it in 2012? Would Ocean?
Maybe one shouldn't ponder these questions for too long, especially given how ephemeral Ocean's greatest moments of life may seem (even some of his most beautiful melodies are mere brief measures that you'll miss if you're not paying attention). As he sings on White Ferrari, "If you think about it, it's over in no time, the best life."
From: Esquire US