I write to you from a bus bound for New York City from Washington, D.C. It’s the first Sunday of fall break. I slept through the first two hours of this bus ride, subdued by a pair of gas-station sleeping pills. When I woke up, the blackness of night covered the crimson, Tuscan and rust-colored leaves of fall. I didn’t know where I was, or who I was to the people around me. I was a kid wearing headphones and a hoodie, sitting next to a child resting gently on his mother, two girls on vacation from Italy and a sleeping Japanese couple. Earlier on the trip, they snapped a dozen photos of the sunset as we crossed the Delaware River.
As I write this sentence, we’re speeding past what looks like an oil refinery north of Philadelphia. There are copper-colored lights popping out every few feet from its tall and exposed staircases. The lights are switched off on the bus. With time to spare and earbuds on hand, I couldn’t think of a better time to listen to “Blonde,” Frank Ocean’s second and most recent album.
Certain records have a way of finding you in the right places at the right times. “Blonde” swallows me up. It embalms me in a solution of synth, catharsis and soul, warming and cutting as it rushes to find all the places it can fill. It consumes the listener; it carries you into sensory hibernation mode.
We crest a highway overpass and, for the first time, I can see Manhattan. Most everyone is sleeping or looking at their phones. Some tourists reach for their cameras.
The two-year anniversary of this album was this August. Genius, the foremost reference database for song lyrics, posted its cover art to Instagram to celebrate. I scrolled through the comment section expecting to find positivity and personal connections to the music, and they came in spades. Each comment was a paraphrase of “I fell in love to [insert song here],” or “this music is still fresh two years later.” With “Blonde,” we’re dealing with weapons of mass emotional destruction.
Listening to “Blonde” all the way through for the first time, I felt the need to tell someone about it (that’s why I started writing this). I couldn’t help but feel an urge to reach for the person sleeping next to me and shake them and tell them why I woke them.
“White Ferrari” is a gem I missed before I listened to “Blonde” in its entirety. The beat sounds as if white noise was compressed into a synthetic violin, fading into an acoustic guitar played nonchalantly. All of a sudden, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver jumps in with a falsetto rap. “White Ferrari” is emblematic of what makes the album so effective. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, it has cheeky lyrics (“Mind over matter is magic, I do magic”), it even has a feature from another very popular artist, all giving it the appearance of a modern-day pop song. But “White Ferrari” sounds nothing like today’s pop. Ocean manages to stay above the fray with an immeasurable amount of authenticity that only he seems to be able to tap into.
The city is coming into focus. Lights from the Empire State Building are cascading down its sides. The bathroom smells like sulfur and bubbles.
“Blonde” is an album with a bunch of love songs, no doubt, but Frank keeps the pressure on with some of the most clever, personal lyrics I’ve ever heard. “Ivy,” the second song on the record, opens with “I thought I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” a line perfectly vague yet accurate enough to knock anyone out. Frank doesn’t even seem to be able to come to grips with what he’s saying himself. He switches between his own voice and a high-pitched, autotuned alias. In the songs “Nikes” and “Self-Control,” his intimacy is most exposed. “Sounds make you cry,” he croons on “Self-Control.” Yikes, Frank. A high pitched “poolside convo about your summer last night” is greeted by a scratchy and unaccompanied electric guitar. Honesty is a subject not often confronted in pop music, but his electronic narration seems to say what he is too scared to say himself. “We don’t talk much or nothin,’ but when we talkin’ about something, we have good discussions.”
Amidst the inarguably heavy emotions, there are moments to catch your breath and dance throughout the record. “Nights” is built off a riffing, electric bell. Drums loop in and out as Ocean does more rapping than singing. “Pink + White” offers more poppy vibes. It rocks up and down on an isolated keyboard playing sparse and repetitive notes. It’s similar to a song on Ocean’s debut studio album “Channel Orange,” titled “Super Rich Kids,” which provides a matured reflection on adolescent love and its privilege.
In the song “Solo,” the dust falls, curtains close and you confront yourself, solo. A sound similar to an electric organ plays. Ocean is speaking to someone outside a club. Things are falling apart: “thinking we’d be better off solo.” This track offers a different take on lost love than most pop songs do. Instead of the faded-photograph, “I-miss-you” nebulousness of most pop music takes, Ocean captures a lost love in its explosive, red giant phase. The perfunctoriness of “Love me and I owe you two grams and a sunrise” burns with the acidity of indifference. By the end of the song, there’s noticeable emptiness. Frank’s parting words are “by myself.” The organ darkens as it glides to a muted but abrupt stop.
There’s a massive traffic jam entering the Holland Tunnel. Everyone wants to get home, but for now, we’re stalled among red tail lights.
As a trope, “Blonde” is a tour de force. It is dependable and expected. It is an R&B album of memorable love songs. It is Frank Ocean loosely crooning over synthetic drums and violins. It is the leaves turning red in the fall. It is tourists snapping photos with semi-automatic pace. It is a bus bathroom triggering my gag reflex after being used by passengers for five hours.
But despite all its inevitability, “Blonde” is ridiculously beautiful. It is relatable, almost cruelly, a feat only Frank Ocean seems to find achievable. It is 18 half-court shots taken blindfolded going swoosh. It is a personal masterpiece from hiphop’s most sincere genius. It is a child next to me FaceTiming his father as he snuggles up to his mother. It is Manhattan awash in white light. It is the highway illuminated by oil refineries as laborers work into darkness. It is a retrograding memory dragged into focus for one more trip down memory lane.
Finally, we’re on the island. The bus closes in on Penn Station. People around me gather their things. The lights come on at the world’s driest and worst smelling club.
No one speaks. Not surprising. After all, how could they?