Best Album of 2016: Blonde by Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean released his second studio album Channel Orange all the way back in 2012, an instant classic that dealt in tales of summertime, youth, and falling in love, backed by its textured, lush and mosaic-like production. Since then, the anticipation for a follow-up had become mythical, encouraged in no small part by the near radio silence by Frank’s team. Fans ate up every morsel of information with relentless vigor, creating a hype for this album that it almost certainly could not surpass. Well, you, hypothetical reader, can stop worrying because this album does in fact meet expectations, although in an entirely different fashion than its predecessor. To the Frank Ocean faithful, Blond is finally here, and it shows a singer and a songwriter who has greatly matured to feel comfortable experimenting in both, to an astounding degree of success.

Anyone expecting a Channel Orange redux should leave those notions at the door, as Frank almost entirely ditches the drums for its entirety, relying instead on guitar melodies that are at times slick, mournful, or dreamy. One such standout is “Ivy” whose Rostam and Jamie xx production allows the guitar work to perfectly complement and enhance the sombre nostalgia in Frank’s lyrics, all of which comes together for what is easily one of the most deeply-felt break-up songs of the last several years.

That’s not to say drums are entirely absent, as they are the funky driving force of ‘Nights’ and propel Frank’s storytelling. This approach also allows Frank to further explore the array of instruments at his disposal, like in the piano-led waltz ‘Pink + White,’ produced by Pharrell and Tyler, the Creator. Most important however is Frank’s vocal experimentation. Not only has he grown more comfortable in his flows in the last four years, here he frequently employs vocoders, prismizers, overlay and modulators to his voice. This allows for more sonic variety and creates a recurring theme throughout the album that expands on the emotion inherent in the lyrics, as well as transforming his voice into an instrument of its own. There is no track on here that matches the sunny production of ‘Thinkin’ Bout You,’ or the relentlessness of ‘Pyramids,’ but much like Radiohead’s Kid A, patient listeners will be rewarded.

Eventually, one will hear more than just the downtempo beats and take note of every meticulous detail from Beyoncé’s wordless backing vocals on ‘Pink + White’ to the interpolation of the Elliott Smith song ‘A Fond Farewell’ and a snatch of the melody from the Beatles’ ‘Flying.’ There’s also Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra providing evocative strings on ‘Seigfried’ or James Blake’s angelic remorse on the outro of ‘White Ferrari.’ The production here is densely layered, creating an aura of enigma, abstraction and nuance. The list of contributions to Blond is a laundry list of who’s who in the music industry, from those mentioned to artists like Kanye and even Bowie. Yet, aside from André 3000’s typically phenomenal verse on ‘Solo (Reprise),’ they remain largely low-key or behind the scenes, which serves to keep the focus on Frank and his story.

If Channel Orange is an album about falling in love, then Blond is largely concerned with falling out of it, seen through the prism of a slightly older man reminiscing on past love and failed relationships. As he sings “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me, / the start of nothing” one can’t help but be drawn to his evocative storytelling that is so immediately attentive. There is also commentary on social media romance, like in the unobtrusive skit ‘Facebook Story,’ narrated by French-Nigerian producer SebastiAn. The entire premise of ‘White Ferrari’ has Frank on a nostalgic drive thinking about his past romances, where ‘Nights’ and closer ‘Futura Free’ concern themselves with his come-up. Even 3k’s verse has him ruminating on twenty years in hip hop and judging the current generation of rappers. Furthermore, Frank’s use of imagery has only improved in his time away as one need look no further than ‘Solo’: “There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky, / in hell, in hell there’s heaven.” Frank’s storytelling abilities remain unparalleled in the current crop of nu-RnB singers, and Blond only serves to reinforce that gap.

It is unfair to say that Frank has grown more confident in the four years between projects, but his willingness to experiment greatly with both his voice and production has resulted in an album of intoxicating emotion and a beautiful depth. It is an album of individual moments and whole compositions, of subtle melodies and subtler tones. Frank Ocean, a bisexual man, has created one of the greatest love letters to youthful romance and all the ugliness that comes with it. It is both a sonic and lyrical achievement that demands repeat listens, as its themes of wistfulness and passion are ubiquitous, yet their delivery is unique.

Our rating: 5/5

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