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Frank Ocean - Blonde (Album Review)

Tuesday, 13 September 2016 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Other than The Weeknd, during his ‘Trilogy’ era, it’s hard to think of an R&B artist as natural when it comes to playing with mood and aesthetic as Frank Ocean.

His debut LP, ‘Channel Orange’, often seemed to fly in the face of the genre’s conventional wisdom. Sensual lyrics weren’t delivered suggestively, but uncomfortably. Its production was deftly handled, faintly implying intimacy yet never thrusting the idea upon the listener like so many of Ocean’s peers are prone to do.

The buzzword used by critics was ‘introspection’, and that applies to an even greater degree on ‘Blonde’, its long-awaited follow up. It’s an album that’s impossible to forcibly digest in a single sitting; this is music for the wee hours of the morning. 

The mix is again woozy and lo-fi, with Ocean imparting graceful but ultimately vague anecdotes in his boyish voice. ‘Blonde’, though, feels even less like typical R&B, with tracks playing more like sketches or snapshots than groove-led songs.

In fact, many of them have no rhythm section at all. On Self Control and Skyline To you can almost envision him slumped over a guitar trying to feel his way through the process. The synths and effects in the background sound like they were added later.

It is more gripping than it sounds. Yes, Ocean is stuck inside his own head, but his head is a beautiful place. His ability to manipulate quirky melodic phrases to fit the lush instrumentals is frequently breathtaking, while subtle hooks steer otherwise meandering tracks like Nights and Ivy and give them purpose.

It’s a technique that’s very tricky to pull off. James Blake, Beyoncé and Andre 3000 make appearances on the record, but you’d not know it from a casual listen. They’re not bad, by any means, just barely conspicuous. Ocean appears willing to learn and keen to collaborate – the credit list on this album is so long it must be a sort of parody – but this is his space.

The fragmented nature of the album inevitably leads to a few issues. Its spoken word interludes stick out awkwardly next to Ocean’s own compelling narratives and he could have risked including more songs in the vein of Pink + White, a stunningly vivid track that harks back to the starry-eyed romanticism of his earlier tapes.

As a whole, though, ‘Blonde’ is a mood piece that will live long in the memory of those who immerse themselves in it, even if to others it will come across as an overly-long, self-indulgent mess from the get go. It’s a personal record that covers the sort of ground you’d expect in drugs, love, loss, sex and mental health and, even if you know nothing of Ocean’s background in terms of his coming out, his Odd Future days, his faith or his reclusive nature, his perspective is still fascinating and his storytelling enthralling. That, combined with his innate songwriting ability, is what will make this album worth going back to.

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