We waited for this one. We waited four summers, since the 2012 release of Channel Orange. I started waiting in August 2012, when Frank performed at the Chicago music festival Lollapalooza. I remember his energy, some slippery wavelength vacillating from Stevie Wonder to Pink Floyd to Marvin Gaye. July 2015, he promised. But July came and went, with no follow-up to his studio debut. Where are you, Frank? we wondered.
In late August of this year, over a year after the projected release, Blonde dropped on Apple Music. The opening track, “Nikes,” just swirls around its listener, dense and slow, with vocals veiled behind pitch alterations. We waited for this album and now we wait longer, wondering where Frank’s smooth tenor is. Three minutes into the song, he arrives, bursting through the auto-tuned wall with “I’ll let you guys prophesy...”
We couldn’t have anticipated Blonde. It’s not like Channel Orange—none of these tracks are pop radio bangers. Blonde is much more complex, both lyrically and compositionally. But that’s not to say that each song is wildly produced; tracks like “Skyline To” and “Self Control” are practically naked with only guitar and vocals. Blonde immerses its listener into a liminal space, somewhere between post-R&B and psychedelic pop, rejection and love, black lives and white spaces, waking and sleeping. What’s Blonde about? It’s about tension. It’s about coming to terms with endings, with transitions. It’s about limitations.
Many of the tracks on Blonde are almost-love songs, full of messages along the lines of I love you, but... And so, Frank sings about dreams. Inbetween REM sleep and wakefulness, dreams carve out that liminal space that Blonde demonstrates. “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” we hear in the opening line of “Ivy.” At first, this sounds like a familiar love song, about some too-good-to-be-true kind of romance. But over the course of the song, dreams and reality converge, and the romance slips right through our grasp. We are left with a devastating repetition of “I’ve been dreaming of you, dreaming of you.” “Solo” builds similarly, starting with the suggestion, “We don’t have to be solo,” only to conclude with “Think we were better off solo.” And “Self Control” cuts right to the chase, opening with, “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight”—another romance just out of reach. It’s unclear as to whom Frank sings—as an openly bisexual man, it could be anyone. What is clear, however, are the complicated mesh of desires and fears that Frank lays out for his listener. The ultimate imagination/reality blur occurs in “Seigfried,” with repetitions of “dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought...”
One of the clearest symbols for reality in Blonde is Time—time as a transitional force, time as an expiration date, time as a cycle—always erring on the side of not enough. We hear it in the lyrical transitions from night to day, or summer to fall. In “Skyline To,” it sounds like, “In comes a morning, hunting us with the beams [...] summer’s not as long as it used to be,” whereas in “Self Control,” it’s “I know you gotta leave, leave, leave, take down some summer time, give up just tonight...” In “Godspeed” it’s the dissonance of “I’ll always be there for you, I’ll let go of my claim on you.” Blonde reverberates with the old cliché: all good things must come to an end. This letting go, this death, weaves in and out of the album. Yet, Time is also in the cyclical nature of “My every day shit, every night shit, every day shit, every night shit” that we hear in “Nights.” Frank presents a Time that is just as much transient as it is forever.
While Blonde does deal with these abstract concepts like Love and Time, the album has plenty to say about current events as well. “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me,” we hear in “Nikes,” nearly 5 years after neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Since Channel Orange, we’ve seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, with a spotlight on police brutality. Frank reminds us on Blonde that there is still much to grieve. We hear from Andre 3000 as well, in the album’s only major guest appearance. He raps in “Solo (Reprise), “When I hear that another kid is shot by the popo, it ain’t an event.” The suggestion from Frank that it could have just as easily been him, that Trayvon “looks just like me,” coupled with Andre’s assertion that these shootings are not events, not anomalies, but are somehow devastatingly normal speaks volumes into 2016. When will the cycles end? Surrounded by song titles like “White Ferrari,” “Pink and White,” and the overall album title Blonde, Frank creates a titular representation of black lives in white spaces, highlighting the tension between tragedy and normalization.
“I’ll mean something to you,” Frank sings on “Nikes.” And he will. Frank Ocean has become an emblem of betweenness, suspended between love and time, day and night, men and women... Frank plants himself firmly in this mysterious gray area all throughout Blonde, and we listeners wonder, perhaps that’s the best place to be. And so, we return again and again to the album’s start, embracing, even savoring, its manifest tension.