Even though we’ve finally heard it, we still don’t know exactly what the title of Frank Ocean’s new album is. Which is fitting: the mystery is a nod toward the infamous silence and absence of certainties that built blond (let’s pick that one) into the 2016 pop-culture phenomenon. On the back of 2012’s critically acclaimed and commercially blockbusting Channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean ditched his record label and attempted to marry creativity with box-office in his own way. He developed a strategy where he played hard to get, banking on near-unprecedented hype to ensure that whatever he produced would see success. It worked, and the successful marriage of the commercial, creative, and social elements of artistry evidence, even more so than the music of blond might, Ocean’s genius.
Alongside blond Ocean released a magazine (Boys Don’t Cry, the rumoured title for the album) and Endless, a rough visual album. The theme across this latest body of work is one of publication-like curation and refinement, and a depth that seems intentionally at odds with the insta-feeds that oversaturate our personal space. Ocean hasn’t deliberately set out to make something we want to hear (read: you might not like blond because it definitely isn’t Channel ORANGE) and he totally shunned the audience desire for instant gratification he might have been tempted to exploit—four years is several internet lifetimes. Depending on your point of view he’s a blessing or a curse in these respects, but there’s more behind the silence. Ocean became a modern-day Gatsby—inches away from transcending into myth—and the apparent hatred of his own party guaranteed that no impending release in the world right now can claim anything like the anticipation we had for blond.
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It’s fitting and cathartic, given the exhaustive wait, that listening to blond is a unique and rewarding experience. There’s social comment, sonic textures, dulcet tones, radio static, thought-provoking lyrics, strained voices, patched together samples, and guitar strings. A huge number of artists produced / contributed / are sampled and it’s fun to try and pick them out after a few listens. blond is expertly crafted—lush, but with fuzzy, rough edges that bite. I think it’s as good as Channel ORANGE, but the two are difficult to compare. Channel ORANGE was tightly produced, almost scripted, whereas blond is more a series of sketches divided into a reluctant tracklist: a kind of atmospheric, meandering odyssey through different demographics of a city.
blond therefore plays far better as a whole than individually. Synergy is the descriptive that springs to mind and I remember specific moments as opposed to tracks: for example, the shout of “I’m not brave!” in “Seigfried” and the transcendent last 90 seconds of “Self Control”. I still don’t really know what I think of the album but I really enjoy listening to it and if longevity is the true judge of quality, I suspect blond will go down a winner. In some ways, I hesitate to say too much: if the ‘spoiler’ tag can ever apply to music this is the album that deserves it. Discovering it for yourself is essential and, empirically, opinions on blond vary wildly.
It is ultimately ironic that Ocean, so successful in his evasion of the spotlight, has produced a fascinating, unexpected piece of work and only become an even greater subject of intrigue. He’s lived up to his own hype (unbelievably) by somehow making an album as interesting as the circus that surrounded it. blond could’ve been a collection of “Lost” / “Super Rich Kids” / “Thinkin Bout You” clones, ready to sit atop the charts for the coming months, and nobody would’ve complained. Instead Ocean shunned his own party and gave us something much more precious: a surprise.