Review: Frank Ocean – Blond

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In the best way possible, listening to Frank Ocean’s Blond feels very much like eavesdropping on a man tending to his wounds; the album aching black and blue with a remarkably raw and sensitive collection of songs that smart and startle in equal measure. Taking on his hurts, insecurities and fears, Blond plays like one long, plaintive battle-cry, with Ocean fighting his demons; the introverted 28-year-old finding strength in vulnerability by wearing his unabashedly thin skin like a shiny coat of armour.

The long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s channel ORANGEBlond features production by the likes of Mike Dean, Jamie xx, and Tyler, the Creator, as well as Ocean himself; with music royalty and superstar hit-makers ranging from Beyoncé to Paul McCartney, Pharrell to Todd Rundgren lending their vocals and pencraft to the album.

One of the most vaunted releases in recent memory, Blond – as an album, song making showcase and work of PR performance art – is a major cultural event unto itself; the artful record living up to expectations and delighting as a crowd-pleasing showpiece of avant-garde R&B.

“Blond plays like one long, plaintive battle-cry, with Ocean fighting his demons; the introverted 28-year-old finding strength in vulnerability by wearing his unabashedly thin skin like a shiny coat of armour.”

Over the course of a relatively short career, Ocean has established himself as a young master of soulful longing; expertly emoting the pains and pangs of loneliness and heartbreak on tracks like “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” and “Forrest Gump”; such gorgeous songs brought to life by a rich baritone and tender “tenor moments”. Blond spotlights this expertise, the Odd Future songbird at his visceral best on the album, intoning wistfully about life and loves lost.

17-songs-long, the much anticipated record wrestles with courage and frailty as primary themes; Ocean bravely sounding off on his worries and imperfections like a man resolved to come to terms with his shortcomings. Successfully crafting an album of endlessly entertaining anti-pop songs that subvert mainstream conventions; the Californian’s latest offerings play like soulful panic attacks, each track an anxiety anthem contending with the rawest of emotions. On Blond, reflectiveness and self-doubt prove pervasive; vulnerability coursing through every note and beat – every lyric and line – with as much consistency as the striking blues and greens running through Ocean’s freshly dyed hair.

An excellent sophomore effort, Blond – albeit in slightly different packaging – presents us with the same vulnerability that can be heard on nostalgia, ULTRA and channel ORANGE. The very same vulnerability that can be inferred from the title of Ocean’s new zine, Boys Don’t Cry – a presumed nod to Kimberley Pierce’s film about Brandon Teena: a transman from Lincoln Nebraska raped and murdered in 1993. This – pained and yet somehow endearing – is the very same vulnerability that can be read in Ocean’s 2012 coming out letter; the famous Tumblr note of a free man that heard “the sky falling.”

On Blond the singer’s vulnerability is most audible on the unflinching and honest “Solo”, a love-lorn Ocean’s yearnsome vocals almost prayerful in tone; the enigmatic songwriter taking to the booth like a confessional to share his innermost thoughts, admitting to being “better off” alone. “Self Control” – another pensive, intimate number – is just as candid, Ocean’s voice quavering and unsure, especially when conceding a loss of restraint. “Know you got someone comin’,” he sings. “Know you gotta’ leave,” he relents.

Speaking to her son’s sensitivity, Mama Ocean makes a star turn and charms on the imploring Be Yourself. Motherly and admonishing, she too harps on vulnerability; hinting at the heavy weight of peer pressure and fame on her boy. “Stop trying to be somebody else,” Ma Ocean says. “Be yourself and know that’s good enough,” she encourages.

Easy on the ear and affecting, there’s a poetic romanticism to these songs; the sheer depth of feelings expressed – typically in the second person – on tracks like “Nikes” and “White Ferrari” bringing that other great Frank to mind; Ocean’s writing at times reminiscent of O’Hara’s. As though inspired by the Personism of the New York poet, the majority of Blond addresses itself to one person, “evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity.”

In much the same fashion as “Having a Coke with You”, “Animals” or any one of the late Frank O’Hara’s best piecesBlond is a playful work of candour, heart and intelligence; owing much of its success to its sincerity. Blunt and unguarded, Ocean allows himself to be vulnerable for our listening pleasure; each song helping to lick our – and presumably, his – wounds. As, Blond attests, love (better yet, life) hurts. Music this good is a fitting salve.

Words: Leke Sanusi

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