Following the death of music group Odd Future, the constituent members of said group had their fates thrown to the wind. Frontman Tyler, the Creator dropped the lukewarm Cherry Bomb. Earl Sweatshirt went through some tough times and his music took a turn to the lo-fi with his album “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside” and its accompanying EP “Solace.” Fans of the group impatiently awaited for Frank Ocean’s next move, which seemed entirely up in the air as he seemed to be in hiding for the past couple of years. After a long hiatus, Ocean has dropped his sophomore LP “Blonde.”
Simply put, “Blonde” is a fantastic, touching and heartfelt album that deals with living in the modern age and the bittersweetness of self-realization.
This review will only be dealing with the “Blonde” version of the album that is on iTunes, not the pop-up store version or the “visual album” titled “Endless” that came out shortly before.
Anyways, enough wading around in the surf; it’s time to dive into this album. I will start with what drew me into this album: the production.
The production on “Blonde” is Ocean’s take on the less-is-more sentiment. Whereas on “Channel Orange,” whose beats were pretty poppy and populated with various instruments and moving parts, the beats on “Blonde” are, for the most part, sparse, simplistic and bring the best out of Ocean’s vocals.
A great example of the production on this album is on the track “Solo,” simply made up of a smothering organ and a “whooping” siren. The production doesn’t shift much over the course of the track, either. Despite the static beat, Ocean’s unique lyrics make this one of my favorites off the album.
In terms of instrumentation, Ocean and his production team–with credits from people such as James Blake and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood–mix electronic sounds with more natural ones in a way that brings out the best in their instrumentation. The song “Nights” seamlessly progresses through this organic to electronic instrumentation, while “Siegfried” sounds like what an orchestral symphony would sound like if you recorded one underwater.
Backtracking to “Nights,” this song is an absolute lyrical highlight. This heartbreaking track describes how reminiscing helps Frank deal with stress and depression. The vocals can be a little hard to make out with all the distortion layered on them, but when you’ve listened to the track enough to hear Ocean croon, “Still got some good nights memorized / and the look back’s gettin’ me right,” it’s hard to not think of your own nights that you hold close to your heart.
“Blonde” is filled with lyrics that are relatable without feeling pandering or generic, like some of the lyrics of “Channel Orange” or those of his contemporaries. Even the sappiest song on the album, “Ivy,” subverts its dreary love-song sap when Ocean almost begs the listener to “hate him.”
What’s even better than the production or the lyrics and vocals on their own is how the two come together and mix seamlessly. Each beat feels tailor-made to the lyrics that accompany it, and each song has a tone that is created with the beats and reinforced with the lyrics.
For example, the short but somber “Close to You” starts with a distorted vocal sample, later introducing some snares that almost sound like they come from a chopped-not-slopped hip-hop mix. These broken and distorted beats and accompanying vocals reinforce the song’s theme of separation.
If you aren’t a fan of tone-shifted vocals, this album isn’t for you. Ocean plays with the tone of his vocals like Laffy Taffy, stretching them out and warping them down on almost every single track. I like the tone-shifted vocals and I think they are a great way for Frank to add more variety, but they could easily come off as grating, like on the opener “Nikes.”
That being said, if you haven’t already listened to this album, I would recommend it in a heartbeat. It is a moving exploration of individuality in the modern age, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if I’m still coming back to this album five years down the road.