Frank Ocean's Blonde exists in a beautiful limbo

Four years after his last release, Frank Ocean still isn't any easier to define

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In the four years since Channel Orange was released, Frank Ocean’s greatest weapon has been ambiguity. Save for a guest spot on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and a few Tumblr essays, the R&B singer has remained silent and reclusive, while fans wondered how he was spending his time. There were rumors of an album called Boys Don’t Cry, which was supposed to be released more than a year ago, but never came. Then, at the start of this month, The New York Times confirmed that the album’s release date was definitely August 5th. Except, it wasn’t. Fans who had marked their calendars saw that Friday come and go, with not so much as a tweet from Ocean (Not least of all because he doesn’t have a Twitter account). And then last week, Ocean released Endless; it was an unexpected visual album, but it wasn’t the album. Two days later, it — Frank Ocean’s new album — was finally here. Frank Ocean’s new album is called Blonde, unless you go by the cover art, then it’s Blond, without the “e.” But given everything that’s happened in the run-up to this album — was this long release all a commercial tactic or just an artist making his work perfect? — that quirk feels par-for-the-course. With Frank Ocean, there’s never just one way to look at things.

Love is never allowed to exist without lack

Blonde is, at first glance, soft; it feels pliant and yielding in a way that Ocean’s past works haven’t. But just beyond that surface is a hardened core. Ocean’s voice, always easy above all else, often sounds stony but apologetic, like he’s talking to someone he’s afraid of hurting. Blonde is both full and empty; love is never allowed to exist without lack. On "Ivy," a pretty, lilting song, Ocean sings, "I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me," but, in case you thought this was a love song, he follows with, "The start of nothing." Ocean’s vulnerability often feels at odds with his sense of self-preservation. On "Pink and White," a carefree pop track: "Won't let you down when it's all ruined." Beyoncé is featured in this song, but her presence has been relegated to a bit of vocal shifting at the outro. This is classic Ocean: his guest spots often hint at something but never fully reveal themselves. (On Channel Orange, Ocean recruited John Mayer only for a short instrumental track; "Sweet Life" is co-produced by Pharrell, but his influence is fleeting.)

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It feels significant that Ocean, a hermit-like musician, who, despite the major impact of this release, is still unknown in many circles, managed to wrangle such an impressive guest list. Current reigning champions like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar drop by, as does Brian Eno. But Ocean doesn’t use these guest spots to shine his singles into radio hits or brag about his famous friends. Their presence is often cursory. Lamar gets more words in than Beyoncé in "Skyline To," but his voice is still buried underneath Ocean’s own. Kendrick’s presence only adds flesh to Ocean’s thoughts, like a director’s background commentary or a one-man chorus in a Greek play.

Other contributors here, like The Beatles and Elliott Smith, feel even more left-field. Of course, they don’t actually appear on the record (not even Frank Ocean can raise the dead) but they serve as reference points; footnotes of influence buried within a track. On "Seigfried," Ocean borrows from Smith’s "A Fond Farewell": "This is not my life / It's just a fond farewell to a friend / It's not what I'm like / It's just a fond farewell." The Beatles reference is even harder to pick out; attentive listeners will notice that Ocean’s "White Ferrari" and The Beatles’ "Here There and Everywhere" both feature the line, "each day of the year." For any other artist, this wouldn’t even be a reference; it’s a common phrase, after all. But in a rare interview with MTV last year, Ocean mentioned he had been listening to The Beatles for inspiration, and their songwriting credit on Blonde feels more like a reminder to Ocean himself of what came before. On Blonde, nothing needs to exist in isolation; what could end up being a throwaway line for some listeners simultaneously exists as an anchor for Ocean himself.

Blonde’s flexible interpretation extends to sexuality. On Channel Orange and 2011's Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean’s queerness was merely hinted at if it appeared at all, but on Blonde, it’s much more explicit. On "Self Control," Ocean sings, "I'll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight." And yet, Blonde is not shy about acknowledging an attraction to women, like on "Nights": "Get some pussy have a calm night." In a post-release note about the album on Tumblr, Ocean wrote, "Consciously though, I don't want straight — a little bent is good." There is no gap between the masculine and the feminine here, either. In the "Nikes" video, Ocean leans against a muscle car, sipping out of a Styrofoam cup and wearing winged eyeliner; a man lies naked in a pile of money; glitter streams out of a woman’s vagina. On the cover of Blonde, an album whose title exists in both the masculine and feminine forms, Ocean’s hair is a genderless green.

'Blonde' has a duality to it

In late 2012, Ocean posted an essay to Tumblr in which he wrote that he had fallen in love with a man when he was a teenager. Ocean compares this unrequited love to a tumor: "By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant." Blonde has that same duality to it. Everything is at once beautiful and destructive. Decisiveness is boring; delineation is sterile. Blonde is gorgeous, painful, serious, and sensitive. And no matter what, you couldn’t have expected it, because you can’t predict something that never stays the same.


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