We begin with a pitched-up voice that sounds like it’s just sucked down an entire Party City’s worth of helium; it keeps drifting heavenward, shouting out some freshman-class angels along the way (“Throw up for A$AP, RIP Pimp C, RIP Trayvon”). Most songs move like the progress bar, from left to right, but “Nikes,” the eerily gorgeous opening track on Frank Ocean’s new album, Blonde, is an ascension. The song is sparse from the start, but it keeps shedding its layers like Aretha’s furs, becoming ever lighter as it keeps moving up, up, up, all the way up. Only once we’re safely above the banality and despair of the mortal world does the voice feel ready to throw off that digital disguise. The clouds part, and there are even harps when we hear him unadorned for the first time: It’s Frank. “We’ll let you guys prophesy,” he sings in that gentle, familiar voice that’s been pretty much silent for four years. “We gon’ see the future first.”
It’d been too long. There are so many things you instantly remember about Frank Ocean’s very singular, beautiful, and uncompromising voice in the opening few minutes of his (second) new album, Blonde. Like, remember that he’s funny? But in a weird and rambling and almost inside-jokey kind of way. “Been skipping showers and switching socks,” he will say a little later on in the album, a moment of groundedness in the middle of a song that sounds like a hymn. There are parts of “Nikes,” too, that sound as serious as church, so you are not exactly expecting a punch line, and yet the last line of this song is one, in a whisper: “You got a roommate, he’ll hear what we do / It’s only awkward if you’re fucking him too.”
If you’re scrutinizing that “him,” trying to parse the gender of the person Frank’s singing to … just move along. We’re way beyond that now, and so is Blonde. Back in 2012, you couldn’t read five words about Ocean’s wonderful album Channel Orange without someone bringing up the note he’d written on his Tumblr shortly before it came out, in which he mentioned that the first person he’d ever fallen in love with was a man. Fans and headline writers alike struggled to find the language to talk about his sexuality — it’s kind of wild how far we’ve come in mainstreaming conversations about queerness and gender fluidity since Channel Orange came out. But you cannot blame the introverted Ocean for his long disappearance between albums, given how often he had to answer for his most intimate experiences in public. In 2012, a GQ reporter asked him if he identified as bisexual. “You can move to the next question,” he said. “I’ll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and boxes and shit.”
“I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel,” he added. “The other shit, you can’t feel. You can’t feel a box. You can’t feel a label.” This was one of the last interviews he gave for a long time.
The Frank Ocean origin story has become the stuff of postdigital music industry legend, but in case you need a refresher: Boy drives from New Orleans to L.A. after Hurricane Katrina. Boy meets some music industry people there, plays them some stuff he’s been working on, and they like it so much that they let him write songs for other artists. Boy writes for John Legend, Beyoncé, etc., but continues working on his own more personal music on the side. Signs his own solo deal with Def Jam but spends much of his time languishing in major label purgatory. Frustrated, and inspired by his friends in the anarchic rap collective Odd Future, Boy releases a moody mixtape for free on the internet, under the new moniker Frank Ocean. Mixtape gains a following, so much so that the label tries to track this Frank Ocean guy down, and he gets the satisfaction of telling them they’ve already signed him under a different name.
And so they let him make Channel Orange, for my money still one of the best records of the decade so far. There were several songs cut in the recognizable shape of timeless classics (“Bad Religion,” “Thinkin’ Bout You”), but mostly the record was an itchy epic, constantly shrugging off its own grandeur. Songs stopped and started abruptly, fused with other snippets unexpectedly, took odd left turns. Four years later, it remains a uniquely weird album, but Blonde, by comparison, makes it sound downright conventional.
The songs on Blonde are shape-shifters, and making sense of this record the first few times I heard it felt like trying to get my footing on a moving sidewalk. Take, for example, the disorientingly pretty “Self Control.” It opens with a syncopated, pitch-shifted rhyme about hanging poolside; if you had to guess you’d think it was going to be some kind of choppy, DJ-Screw-indebted banger — until the beat drops, except instead of a beat it’s the pastoral lick of an electric guitar. Then Frank comes in, crooning like an X-rated Sam Cooke: “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.” After a couple of listens, it all starts to make sense, and add up to its own kind of pretty. Ocean knows it’s all too easy to shock the listener with loudness, lewdness, and aggression, but Blonde does something more challenging: It shocks you with its softness, its quiet, and its incredible tenderness of feeling.
Blonde coincides with the release of Ocean’s zine Boys Don’t Cry, which he gave out for free last weekend at a few select pop-up shops, but of course the highlights — including an interview with Lil B and an already iconic Kanye West poem about McDonald’s French fries — hit the internet shortly after. One was an essay Ocean wrote about his passion for cars. “Raf Simons once told me it was cliché,” he writes, “my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. Consciously though, I don’t want straight — a little bent is good.”
Blonde is more than a little bent. Melodies take labyrinthine routes; songs wrestle free from the confines of verse-chorus-verse. Frank Ocean is not content to let things be straightforwardly beautiful, though he occasionally teases us with fleeting moments that are (that opening note on “Godspeed”!). The album occasionally reminds me of Kanye’s The Life of Pablo in its polyamory for both the sacred and profane; its most stained-glass parts feel graffitied on, or worse. “Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself, going off tabs of that acid,” he sings over a church organ, on the truly sublime “Solo” (the closest he’s come to writing a “Hallelujah”). But Ocean has always excelled at finding the poetry in ordinary things, and there’s a lived-in quality to these songs that make them breathe. This album will disappoint people who want something immediate; I couldn’t get into it until my third or fourth listen. Ocean could have a different kind of success aiming for something more accessible but — courageously and at times frustratingly — he’s chasing after something else.
“I got twoooo versions,” Ocean prophesied before the record came out. And sure enough, the tracks are sequenced differently (and a few are swapped out) on the free CD version of Blonde and its Apple Music counterpart. (There are also twoooo albums, if we include his visual mixtape Endless in this conversation.) In some sense, the ever-forward-thinking Ocean is reveling in the streaming-era demise of the album as a fixed entity — similar to what Kanye did when he continued to tweak Pablo (and Ocean’s contributions to it in particular) after its release. At times, though — and this is why his humor is so vital — Ocean’s cultivation of confusion feels less art-theorist and more merry-prankster. Even the haze around the record’s true title — is it Blond or Blonde? — feels like a joke on people who are reading too much meaning into the wrong things. Some details are still left to be unexplained, and Ocean is definitely a proponent of the myth-making qualities of mystery. “They tryna find 2Pac,” he laments towards the end of the record. “Don’t let ’em find 2Pac.”
Ironically, maybe the most down-to-earth thing about Blonde is how excited it is about drugs. No album has been this earnestly hyped about the transcendent powers of weed and shrooms since that album Miley Cyrus made about her dead pets. (R.I.P. Pablow the Blowfish.) For a record overflowing with richly complex songwriting, the interstitials feel a little on-the-nose; even though Frank’s mom delivers a Best Supporting Oscar–worthy monologue, I did not really need another Coachella-grade skit about dRuGs. Also would it really have been such a big deal for the French dude to accept his girlfriend’s Facebook request? No matter; I’m grateful for these moments of human awkwardness, if only to remind us that Ocean is still mortal.
A couple of months ago, Frank Ocean wrote another highly publicized Tumblr post, this time in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting. “Many hate us and wish we didn’t exist,” he wrote. “Many are annoyed by our wanting to be married like everyone else or use the correct restroom like everyone else.” The tone of this note was mournful, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that us. His 2012 note seemed to come from a place of isolation and even loneliness; Channel Orange was largely a record about unrequited love. But Blonde exudes the warmth of plurality, the heat of connection, the ease of finally belonging somewhere.
He went on to write, “I daydream on the idea that maybe all this barbarism and all these transgressions against ourselves is an equal and opposite reaction to something better happening in this world, some great swelling wave of openness and wakefulness out here.”
Though he has a heightened sensitivity to its bruises, few musicians are bounding into this cultural moment of crumbling hierarchies and dissolving labels quite as optimistically as Frank Ocean. But even dreamers sometimes have second thoughts: “Maybe I’m a fool,” he sings on the elegiac “Seigfried,” “Maybe I should move and settle / Two kids and a swimming pool, I’m not brave.”
For some reason these lines made me think of an Alice Munro story that I love called “Dulse,” about a restless woman who wants something other than “settling” for the two kids and a swimming pool. “Should she have stayed in the place where love is managed for you,” she wonders, “not gone where you have to invent it, and reinvent it, and never know if these efforts will be enough?”
I hear Frank Ocean in that question: the fatigue of building something entirely from scratch — but also the tireless propulsion toward something new and as yet unblueprinted, maybe even utopian. When he peeled back the curtain on that mysterious livestream a few weeks ago, we all wondered what he was letting us see. Maybe it was the terrifying, noble labor of reinventing love.