By Ryan Croke
Over the past few months, I have put many hours into listening to new types of music and branching out my music taste. One of the best things to come out of this newfound curiosity for new music has been my discovery of Frank Ocean. The widely celebrated R&B artist has produced 3 projects so far, the first of which, nostalgia, ULTRA., I reviewed last week. This week, I have been dying to get my thoughts on his most recent album, Blonde. Released August 20, 2016, Blonde has become an extremely renowned and popular project in the time it has been available. This album was at the top of my list of albums I wanted to listen to when I first started branching out into new music, and I have been looking forward to my review of the project.
As I do with every album I review, I want to briefly introduce it to those who may not have heard of it before and provide some background information about the artist and the album. Frank Ocean, a member of the now-defunct west coast rap collective Odd Future, is one of the most revered artists of this century, by both fans and critics alike. He moved to the West Coast from New Orleans when the city was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. With little money, he began ghostwriting for popular artists such as Beyoncé and Justin Bieber, until he released his debut mixtape in 2011, titled nostalgia, ULTRA.. He then joined Odd Future, a rap group founded by another popular artist, Tyler, the Creator, that dominated the early 2010s, particularly 2011 and 2012. The collective helped many artists that are revered today get on their feet, the most notable names being Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler, the Creator, and of course, Frank Ocean. Ocean was an anomaly in the rap focused group, as he was more of an R&B artist, despite dropping bars on some tracks of other Odd Future members. The group went their own separate ways in 2015, 1 year before the release of Blonde. Years prior, weeks before the release of his first studio album channel ORANGE in 2012, Ocean revealed his bisexuality to the world in a Tumblr post detailing his first love. It’s fair to say that Frank Ocean is an interesting figure in pop culture, although an elusive one. Blonde is widely regarded as Frank’s magnum opus, his masterpiece, his best work to date. I am going to reveal to you through a track-by-track analysis my thoughts on the third project from Frank Ocean.
The track list features multiple interludes, and the album is listed at 17 songs with exactly one hour of music. I am not going to cover the tracks I would consider to be interludes, these being Be Yourself, Good Guy, Solo (Reprise), Facebook Story, and Futura Free. I consider these to be filler, attempting to help the song reach the one-hour runtime that Ocean clearly wanted to hit. Frank clearly wanted the album to be exactly one hour long, not one second more or less. More on this later. The interludes do nothing to help the project for me, but they are mere interludes, so they don’t detract from my enjoyment. I actually created a playlist with none of the interludes, and this is typically how I listen to the album these days. I do recommend, at least for your first listen, if you have never heard the album before, to listen to the full album, interludes included.
Regardless, the first song, Nikes, is one of the more well-known songs from the album. The song’s first half features a heavily manipulated voice that for many, myself included, is not fun to listen to. Ocean can make his voice incredibly high-pitched, and I am not for it. It also has a moan about a minute and a half in and combining that with the effects on the voice, this is almost impossible to listen to. I actually tried to listen to this back in early 2019, and was immediately turned away from the album because of the high-pitched voice, and didn’t listen to it again for over a year and a half. I still don’t care for this part of the song, although it has grown on me a lot, and I do tolerate it now, as the lyrics make up for the bad vocals. This album definitely features the deepest lyrics from Frank up to this point, an improvement from the lyrically weak nostalgia, ULTRA.. Part 2 of Nikes is utterly incredible. The soft guitar plucks that ring throughout the second half of the song are heavenly, and the now normal voice of Frank Ocean is on full display. The vocal manipulation talents he possesses are incredible, and he is the most talented vocalist I have ever listened to. Nikes starts off weak, horribly weak, but the excellent finish is enough to make this song enjoyable.
Track 2, Ivy, is a massive improvement from Nikes in every way. Frank’s use of the muffled sound of a guitar throughout the album is incredible, and Ivy features the genius use of such sound. Frank reflects on his past mistakes and a relationship that didn’t work out, and the repeating chorus, beginning with the words, “I thought I was dreaming when you said you loved me” gets higher pitched each time, signifying the emotional pain he is feeling getting deeper and deeper. The song is believed to be about his first love whom he described in his 2012 Tumblr post, and could also be considered the sequel to another popular Ocean song, Thinkin’ Bout You, the lead single from his debut studio album. Ivy is definitely a highlight from the album, and one of Frank’s best and deepest songs to date.
The third song from the album, Pink + White, is another highlight for me. The song kicks off with a beautiful yet simple piano beat that repeats throughout the song. Although sounding the most upbeat on the album, the lyrics are somewhat heartbreaking, as Ocean details his childhood and the death of a close friend. The song’s second verse features Frank singing about a hurricane wrecking everything in its path, most likely a reference to Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out his hometown of New Orleans back in 2005. The outro of the song features background vocals from Beyoncé, and although having a limited appearance on the song, her presence is felt. Whenever I feel stressed, I always turn to this song. It always lightens my mood, and although the lyrics are on the sadder side, Frank’s delivery and Beyoncé’s incredible vocals paired with the infectious piano ringing throughout the song work wonders on my stressed state. The song is not only a favorite on the album for me, it is an all-time favorite as well.
Solo, the fourth track from the album, is the first of several from the album that features an underlying theme of religion. The song touches on the feeling of loneliness, and the different parts of this feeling, whether that be waiting for a call from a lover, or even self-love. The title can be interpreted two different ways, and throughout the track, Ocean details the feeling of loneliness he feels, but also that he’s “so low” in his emotions, and needs to “get high”, both figuratively and literally. This song is another highlight from the album and another all-time favorite of mine.
Skyline To, track number 5, is a short transition type song, switching the mood from that of Solo to that of the next song, Self Control. This song, while great, is nothing special compared to what else is on the stacked track list. It features Kendrick Lamar, but teases fans, as one of the most talented artists of our generation is only featured on a couple of ad-libs, saying “smoke” and “haze” multiple times. It is light-hearted and somewhat playful, and this song is still a strong one for me.
Self Control follows Skyline To and sees the return of Frank’s high-pitched vocals similar to that on Nikes. Although it features the same high-pitched vocals I would refer to as dreadful, they are executed much better here, and they feel almost at home. I actually think they add to the song, and I don’t know what makes the big difference here, whether it be the guitar instrumental or the fact that they only last for a couple of lines, but I enjoy them. The song is very strong, and everything that follows the second chorus of the song, performed by Yung Lean and Austin Feinstein, is an 11/10 for me. The song’s outro is repetitive, boring, and meaningless from a lyrical standpoint, but Frank’s delivery and the drastic change in instrumentation make the outro of the song possibly my favorite part of the entire album.
Although Blonde had no lead singles, perhaps Nights would have been the most likely song to fit into that role. The best way to describe the song is “epic”, as it features various instrumental and vocal shifts throughout the 5-minute runtime, despite having a very mellow tone. Nights is most well known for its beat switch at the 3:30 mark, which, if you are listening to the album with the interludes, is at exactly the 30-minute mark, or the halfway point of the album. At one point, the song switches to a more sad tone, despite having sad lyrics on almost every song. The instrumental changes drastically in this song, and on the remaining tracks on the project. With the tone in the song changing, so does the tone for the rest of the album, and it is apparent on almost every track in the latter half of Blonde.
Pretty Sweet is the most experimental song on the album, and despite its short runtime at only 2:33, it is another highlight from this album, although every song seems to be one. I don’t have much to say about the song, but the Beatles’ influence on Frank is extremely apparent in this song. Pretty Sweet was actually recorded at Abbey Road Studios, so the influence makes sense.
The shortest track that I feel could be considered an actual song is Close To You. Standing at only 1:26, you may wonder why I didn’t consider this an interlude, but I believe there is enough going on for the track to be considered a song. It is very simple, and only a cover of legendary musician Stevie Wonder’s cover of a song with the same title by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Another song I can’t say too much about; it is nothing special, but is much better than the four interludes I mentioned earlier.
The tenth song from Blonde is the iconic, heartbreaking, beautiful song that is White Ferrari. Frank details a young love in an extremely emotional way, and you can hear the pain in Frank’s voice as he sings the heartbreaking lyrics. The many vocal changes that occur throughout the song are incredible, and verse three of the song is my favorite verse of any song ever. His incredible vocal talent is showcased in full array on this song. In the third verse, Frank looks back on a promise and the memories he has from the relationship, among other things, over guitar plucks that slowly fade into the final verse of the track. The instrumental changes that are frequent throughout the song prevent it from growing old, but convey the same feeling of sadness. The vocal changes that accompany these instrumental changes are incredible. I could go on and on about how much I love White Ferrari, but for your sake, I will stop the praise here. If you only listen to one song from this album, pick White Ferrari. You will not regret it.
Siegfried, the second to last song, is one that I believe to be severely underrated, and this is mainly because of the deep lyrics. The lyricism on the track is wonderful, and the soft instrumental that I would compare to ambience is very soothing. Frank’s use of guitar on this song, while somewhat limited, is amazing, as a soft guitar riff runs across the listener’s headphones from one side to another. The sad lyrics are constant, and the final part of the song features my favorite ad-lib ever; Frank saying, “In the dark”, as the word dark echoes out effectively that I think would have made a great conclusion to the album. Frank contemplates what he should do with his life in this song that seems to be some type of breakup song that is another strong showing from Ocean.
The final song, while not the 9 minute outro skit that is Futura Free, is Godspeed. This song features Frank detailing himself respectfully leaving a lover. Featuring a gospel-like outro provided by Km Burrell, this song is a bit of a weak point for me, but only when matched up against the prior songs on this masterpiece of an album. I think Seigfried would have made a better outro, but that may just be a personal preference.
Before I give my final thoughts, here is my ranking of the songs on Blonde from best to worst, including a rating for each song out of 10:
- White Ferrari (10/10)
- Pink + White (10/10)
- Ivy (10/10)
- Seigfried (10/10)
- Solo (10/10)
- Self Control (10/10)
- Nights (9.5/10)
- Skyline To (9.5/10)
- Pretty Sweet (9/10)
- Close To You (9/10)
- Godspeed (9/10)
- Nikes (8/10)
Blonde and I have had a tumultuous relationship, to say the least. I originally skipped the entire rest of the album after hearing the first few minutes of Nikes, saying the album was unlistenable and horrid, and one of the most overrated albums ever. Now, I can safely say that my former self was naïve and a fool, because he missed out on this absolute masterpiece of a project. This album, from top to bottom, (excluding the first minutes of Nikes, obviously) is incredible. Every song is great, and it’s hard to pick one that I like the least for my ranking of the songs. Regardless, it is a good assessment to say that Blonde by Frank Ocean has grown on me since my first listen, and it has ascended the ranks into my top tier of albums. So much so that as of March 2021, Blonde is my 2nd favorite album of all time. My final rating for Blonde is a 10/10.