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Album of the Week: Frank Ocean's 'Blond'

by Michael Penn II

On August 22, 2016

Every week, we tell you about an album that we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Frank Ocean's long-gestating and long-delayed Blond, which came out this weekend as a surprise, following the release of a visual album called Endless, which you should also experience. Both are streaming now via Apple Music.

When four years of thirst manifest in a satisfying guilt, it becomes easy to marvel over the test of time. I am now engulfed in this guilt, flanked by a warm calm at the privilege to experience a beautiful work of art like Blond: the second retail LP from 28-year-old Frank Ocean, an artist from New Orleans who’s infatuated by cars and love and youth and existence. I leave the prefix for artist blank, for his work is an evasion of genre governors; he’s a bonafide pop star, the second-best rapper from Odd Future, a champion of soul, and whatever the fuck he wants to be. But he’s damn good no matter the armor, and this album Ocean’s fine-tuned salute to the test of time itself, an unflinchingly-immersive work that will hold your hand through the pain and the mundanity before gently letting you down, complacent in never knowing when he’ll return. Haven’t you had enough for now?

The question pulsates in its irony, as Frank spends the hour with many a guitar, spinning yarns about his youth. He’s very into vintage cars and drugs and fucking, and he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. It’s made very clear by the visual for the opener “Nikes:” perhaps his most overwhelming work to date, full of melanated bodies dancing in glitter and smoke. Frank’s set on fire, he dances in an empty concert hall with the devil in the bleachers, he even stops in the middle of the party think of how Trayvon looks just like him. As Frank holds his picture in a frame, it’s a damning unraveling of how life’s perils casually sink into the fringe of our excessive lives. Thus, “Nikes” is the perfect setup for Blond’s narration, as Frank glides through tales of love and foolishness with his tongue firmly in cheek, steadily blurring the line between his victories and shortcomings, but fond of every moment. As he says on “White Ferrari:” “16, how was I supposed to know anything?”

The album’s emotional dexterity suggests a much different maturity, a classic-yet-pervasive approach to the sensitivity of youthfulness that comes from every summer you can remember. Summer is everywhere on Blond, but “everything sucked back then,” as Frank says on “Ivy.” The ever-present use of guitars serve proper vessels to make the most juvenile moments feel jubilant and holy. “Solo” is one of many effective standouts, transitioning from a mom’s DARE-ad-esque voicemail on “Be Yourself” to Frank tweakin’ on acid and dancing his ass off with some weed to match. “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire / Inhale/in hell, there’s heaven” is backed by a church organ, a reminder of a dangerous society nudged between bars about hittin’ it raw and skipping the shower. Its reprise makes for another brilliant moment by Andre 3000, juxtaposing a frantic piano with a futuristic 808 that breaks the narrator’s fourth wall to ponder the malaise of every murderous trend and passing fancy. It pissed me off to the point of this reaction.

The album’s emotional dexterity suggests a much different maturity, a classic-yet-pervasive approach to the sensitivity of youthfulness that comes from every summer you can remember.

A powerful characteristic of Frank’s oeuvre is the championing of everyday life as holy, while being unafraid to shatter those very ideas on a whim. It’s what summons the wishes for immortality on “Pink + White,” the death of the breadwinner on “Seigfried.” No matter how many grams he’s turned to smoke, the excessiveness never drowns itself in its repetition. Every awkward moment becomes a rite of passage, spare no first date or final farewell. Blond is as self-conscious as the young man it speaks of, a necessary awareness to channel the young man’s immaturity into teachable moments. When the “Good Guy” rushes to love like a bullet train when a quick nut may be the only thing on the agenda, you resonate with it. “Skyline To” makes you remember the moment when your summer began to evaporate, when “every day counts like crazy” and your road trips are in desperation to escape everything normal.

The narrative breaks pose for Blond’s most important moments; moments that confront the present using Frank’s own history for every juicy detail with an unbearable resonance, a clear level up that leaves Channel Orange as a scrape of the surface. The second verse of “Nights” presents the otherworldly braggadocio many forget Frank can deliver, speaking on riding around New Orleans in the Acura back when No Limit was poppin’, and ending up fucking around on a lover in Houston after Katrina even when he didn’t have his own mattress to sleep on. The flex rap seems a daunting task for Frank - imagining JAY Z’s e-mail telling him to “act [his] net worth” - but it stands as a self-coronation only worthy of someone still trying to outrun the world at all costs. “Futura Free” is only as satisfying as the “Godspeed” before it, a drone gospel of heartbreak, and the moment on “Seigfried” before that where that love is trapped in the dark, maybe sacrificed to convention in “an idea from another man’s mind.”

Blond is as self-conscious as the young man it speaks of, a necessary awareness to channel the young man’s immaturity into teachable moments.

We live in ideas; few commit to dismantling them, all make concessions. Perhaps Frank’s obsession with this keeps him driven to taking his time, lending to passive-aggression when he feels it necessary. After the outcry heard around the world on July 31 with no album in sight, the endless Endless pre-stream appeared on August 1 as a bit of a nudge, a bit of a “fuck you, I’m working here.” When the crowd wanted blood after a few weeks of that confusing stream, he gives us over 30 songs in a weekend. The album’s closer leans in on this relationship: “I’m just a guy, I’m not a god / Sometimes I feel like I’m a god, but I’m not a god.” He isn’t; he’s just a man who’s enjoying the journey and suggesting you take the hint. Blond’s journey is not only one worth taking, but worth savoring as you navigate your own. It stands impossible to figure what this album will mean in a decade for the millennials obsessed over Frank’s world - we even call him Frank like we know him, as Eve Ewing noted - but I’m obliged to envision a fondness of my own foolishness, reeling at the chance to revel in finding the human in my hedonism once more. That’s a gift that never ends, and Frank made me do it.


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