On Blonde, Frank Ocean returns with more tones of heartbreak, unrequited love, drug use and despondence — but while his 2012 debut Channel Orange was full of vivid storytelling, this new record’s lyrics dwell on the abstract more than the concrete. Even if you aren’t familiar the story behind Frank Ocean’s new music by now, the last six months of memes and complaints should tell you all you need to know: his fans have been waiting. After coming into the industry on the coattails of Odd Future and building a buzz since his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. An openly bisexual man in the R&B/Hip Hop space, buzzworthy with the talent to back it up; he almost seemed too good to be true. And for the next few years, he was: aside from a few sparse guest appearances, he disappeared from the music scene altogether. In 2015, he revealed that he was releasing an album and a magazine, both titled Boys Don’t Cry, later that year. A year of delays and fan whining later, Frank delivered on his promise, and then some: a ‘visual album’ called Endless that played new music as he built a staircase on camera, the magazine (available in four pop-up shops around the world), and the main event, his new full-length album.
Musically and structurally, it does the same. Much of Blonde sounds more like a minimalist soft rock record with its sparse, isolationist guitars and pianos; little to no drums; and choruses that fade into the rest of Frank’s dense, congested lyrics. Nearly a third of the album’s songs hover around only a minute long. And fluidity seems to be a fundamental part of who he is: from his songwriting style, to his sexuality, to his penchant to disappear and pop up whenever he wants. Yet, the ambiguity has mixed results: sometimes he delivers only what’s necessary to make his point, while other efforts come across as meandering and incomplete, luring the listener into digging for gems that aren’t there. “Self Control” doesn’t get into the details of a failed relationship and pleas for a one-night stand, but the pieces that Frank does give, and the longing in his vocals — which have improved immensely since four years ago, both in melody and in emotiveness — tells all that you need to know. It’s like seeing someone who is wearing a breakup all over his or her face; what happened doesn’t matter as much as where it left them. The chaotic strings, synthesizers and “Pretty Sweet” are so captivating that Frank’s words are secondary. But “Skyline To” comes off as lazy and surface with half-baked lyrics and indiscernible Kendrick Lamar background vocals. “Solo” comes off as a glorified weed song with its corny “no trees to blow through, but blow me and I owe you” punchlines, and Andre 3000’s “Solo (Reprise)” is a standout, but mostly because of how weird and random it is.
Frank is rarely completely straightforward on Blonde, but many of the best moments come when he gets closer to it. The first single “Nikes” is an ambient, screwed number that criticizes materialism and honors the lives of A$AP Yams, Pimp C and Trayvon Martin (“the nigga looked just like me,” Frank cries). The lush “Pink + White,” highlighted by Pharrell’s signature pianos and melodic background vocals by Beyonce, is the most sonically digestible moment on the album and one of the catchiest productions you’ll hear all year. While channel ORANGE had its formlessness and adventurousness on songs like “Pyramids,” it also had digestible moments like the sultry “Thinkin’ Bout You,” and “Bad Religion” with its provactive sensibilities. Those latter songs aren’t here, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether these comparatively clearer moments are satisfying on their own merit, or if only because they are a reprieve from the constant digging that has to be done elsewhere.
The best moments are arguably when Frank masterfully merges the direct with the abstract. His structural edginess pays off on “Nights;” he begins the song sing-raps about after hour capers over a metallic production; that’s followed by a 16-bar chorus, a bridge, and transitioning guitars switch into a nocturnal, Drake-lite soundbed that gives Frank space to share memories about his life in New Orleans and with a lover he lived with in Houston after Hurricane Katrina. “Seigfried” begins with sung lyrics about his individuality making him feel torn between alienation and assimilation, and ends with spoken word that is aesthetically beautiful despite lacking clear cohesion. Whether Frank Ocean’s four-year sabbatical was worth the wait will be up to the listener, but for better and worse, he did exactly what he wanted with Blonde — and with a four-year wait, sincerity is the least he could offer.