Frank Ocean's Blonde is About Finding Heaven in Hell
It’s been over four years since we’ve heard from Frank Ocean. Aside from the rare writing credit on a Beyoncé or James Blake song, the ghostwriter-turned-superstar has been soaking up anonymity since 2012. It was a well-earned vacation. His major label debut Channel Orange was nominated for a handful of Grammys including Album of the Year, and scored him a win in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category. At the same time that he released Channel Orange, Ocean came out as bisexual in a moving note on his Tumblr. You can read the full post here, (and I recommend doing so), but in it he describes falling in love with another man at 19 years old. The relationship lasted years despite being unhealthy by his own assessment—his partner was reluctant to reciprocate affection and had a serious girlfriend for at least part of the time he was involved with Ocean. The note describes his two albums—early mixtape Nostalgia Ultra and official debut Channel Orange—as escapism. “I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine,” he writes.
Somewhere in the past four years he seems to have stopped avoiding his own world. Blonde (previously known by its facetious working title Boys Don’t Cry) abandons the reliable formatting and fictional characters of his previous works and recounts the untold story of his first love. It’s been years since the relationship ended, but the wounds still sound raw. In fact, the whole album could be described as uncooked—song structures are fluid and wandering; production is often stripped bare. Vocals overlap without bothering to sing the same lyrics. If the new wave of alternative R&B triggered by Channel Orange inspired singers like Miguel, Blonde is much closer to acts like Bon Iver. It meanders artfully; its lyrics are equal parts precious and cryptic. But its closest tie to a Bon Iver album is its gentle, unabashed beauty.
Lyrically, Ocean always finds creative ways to say what he’s feeling. A lesser songwriter might just sing, “we’re not kids anymore.” He adds, “ivy’s illegal, don’t you remember?” referring to the 1989 ivory trade ban that was passed when he was two years old. He doesn’t say, “you’ve changed,” he says, “you cut your hair but you used to live a blonded life.” It’s this lyrical nuance that makes his pain so visceral when he laments being left by his first real love (likely the titular blonde). On “Solo,” he swallows his tears for a moment and tries to embrace being alone. He only partially succeeds—too often the self-affirming descriptor “solo” sounds like the less optimistic “so low.” It’s in this song that Ocean takes a deep breath and recites the album’s thesis, probably to himself in a mirror: “inhale, in hell there’s heaven.”
Musically, there are too many breathtaking moments to choose one for dissection. The subtle, psychedelic guitars on “Ivy” provide a bed of sound so tactile you can almost hear his smile as he sings, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me.” Little touches like the fleeting, placid theremin solo in “Skyline To” are gingerly placed throughout with utmost care. Standout track “Self Control” shifts deftly from one texture to another. It opens as a soulful pitch-adjusted acoustic jam but quickly reinvents itself. As a tearful Ocean begs his lover to “keep a place for me / I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing,” a full string section takes over the chords and he sings a delicate, muted, wordless solo. Then before you can gain your footing there’s another quick shift, and suddenly his voice becomes the orchestra, unleashing a wall of harmonies as he stutteringly implores, “I know you gotta leave… give up, just tonight.” One of the most creative moments is the despondent interlude “Close To You,” a minimalist reinterpretation of The Carpenters’ song of the same title with reimagined lyrics.
Blonde also explores gender ambiguity. The music video for “Nikes” released hours ahead of the album features him decked out in eyeliner and glitter. In a way he’s becoming a counterpart to his idol Prince, who injected a healthy dose of femininity into his heterosexuality. Ocean instead matter-of-factly marries masculinity with homosexuality. His lyrics are full of car references, and amidst his fragility he makes room for some braggadocio. Even the album title toys with gender norms. Publications have been incorrectly reporting that there are two alternate titles: “Blonde,” according to listings on iTunes and Apple Music, and “Blond,” according to the cover art. In reality it’s a single title—Ocean just refuses to choose between the masculine and feminine forms of the word.
There are covert moments within the album where he addresses gender and sexual orientation, too. On the Beatles-quoting “White Ferrari” he wraps his emotional anguish in a blanket of tranquility, and the outro seems to address his partner while simultaneously echoing the LGBTQ community’s uphill battle for equal rights:
I’m sure we’re taller in other dimensions
You say we’re smaller and not worth the mention
You’re tired of moving, your body’s aching
We could vacay, there’s places to go
Clearly this isn’t all that there is
Can’t take what’s been given
But we’re so okay here, we’re doing fine
I’m up and naked
You dream of walls that hold us in prison
It’s just a scar, at least that’s what they call it
And we’re free to fall
It’s not until the penultimate track “Godspeed” that Ocean finally seems to find the heaven he’s been holding out for. It’s at once heartbreaking and uplifting—an unorthodox catharsis, but a perfectly suited climax. The three-minute burst of ambient-influenced gospel music doesn’t cut all ties with his former lover, nor does it announce he’s let go of his love. Instead he compromises, admitting that he’ll always love this man even though he’s never coming back: “I let go of my claim on you, it’s a free world / You look down on where you came from sometimes / But you’ll have this place to call home, always.” Hearing Ocean rejoice in the face of such heartbreak makes me wonder if he’s achieved an emotional clarity that some of us will never experience. Perhaps that’s for the best; it took him years of hell to get here.
That's the most impressive thing about Blonde: how gracefully it deals with such profound loss. On Bjork’s album Vulnicura she unloads the pain of being abandoned by somebody whom she loves completely, and the music sounds desperate, depressed, and disjointed. Those ingredients all play a part in Ocean’s latest album, but they’re overshadowed by how confident and confoundedly gorgeous it is.