The Breakdown: Blonde, by Frank Ocean

There is no chance in hell you can ever expect an unbiased Frank Ocean review from me. I got hooked on his music almost exactly five years ago, but it wasn’t infatuation on first listen. I stumbled upon nostalgiaULTRA when I was heavy into Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator’s early work, but it didn’t click for me until I heard Frank described as the neo-soul James Taylor. In a way, the two are uncannily similar. Their musical styles feel homegrown, each with their own kind of longing Americana, each completely different from everything you’ve ever heard, yet incredibly familiar and comforting. Once that connection registered with me, I began to obsess over cuts like ‘Strawberry Swing’ and ‘We All Try.’ Since Channel Orange came out a year later, I haven’t looked back.

Over the past four years, Frank’s voice and songwriting has improved significantly. He is varying his vocal delivery and range more than ever, and his songs have become at once more unconventional and meticulous. Listening to Blonde for the first time felt like staring at blank wall. It took a little while for the details to become apparent. With each listen, the big moments seem bigger, the colors richer and more saturated. The grandiose elements of Channel Orange are here confined to isolated incidents. There is no 10-minute driving down the highway in the desert punishing your car’s speakers to the limit anthem like ‘Pyramids,’ but the scarcity of those huge moments makes them even more poignant and effective.Blonde is not the album I expected from Frank, after sitting with it for a couple weeks, I couldn’t imagine anything better.


  1. Nikes (featuring KOHH)

Produced by Frank Ocean & Om’Mas Keith

This is a very strange and polarizing way to start the album. While I do like the lyrical content in the first verse, especially the references to Yams, Pimp-C and Trayvon, I didn’t love the pitched up vocals right away. This song, and much of the album, is difficult to “get” and maybe that is intentional on Frank’s part. Perhaps it’s a way to weed out a lot of surface listeners who might write the project off right away, while rewarding those who are willing to chew on it for awhile before judging the project as a whole.

Now when Nikes comes on, I really enjoy the moment when the effected vocals end, when the refreshing clean vocals arrive in the second. Even though it isn’t my favorite song on the album, I can’t seem to stop listening to it. It’s weirdly addictive. Also, I don’t know anything about who KOHH is or know enough Japanese to decipher what he’s saying in the third verse, but I like how he sounds.

 

  1. Ivy

Produced by Frank Ocean, ROSTAM & Jamie xx

In comparison to ‘Nikes’, ‘Ivy’ is much more accessible and immediate. I love the pulsating, dreamy instrumentation that backs up some of Frank’s strongest melodies on the album. I’ve had “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me” stuck in my head all week. There’s something about the way Frank delivers the melodies in this song that burrows into your head and just sticks there.

Lyrically, the song seems to be about unexpectedly entering a relationship that is both passionate and somewhat one-sided. While Frank’s love interest is professing their love to him, putting their arms around him and letting him know how much he means to them, there isn’t much in the way of reciprocation from Frank. The song is all about how the other person feels and what the relationship used to be like, not how Frank feels or where the relationship is going. It’s clear that Frank’s love interest was either more enthusiastic about the relationship or Frank wasn’t willing to match the commitment. I love the way Frank can write a beautiful song about a failed relationship that isn’t obvious until you read into a bit. Great stuff.

  1. Pink + White

Produced by Frank Ocean & Pharrell Williams

Additional production by Tyler, The Creator

This production lineup is a dream for me and what Frank, Pharrell and Tyler delivered is perfect drive around with the windows down music. The lurching drums, the playful piano, the driving acoustic guitar, and the lush strings all add to a blissful summer day vibe that is really appealing to me.

The song is a kind of parable, one about  life lessons he’s been taught by those close to him, about accepting life as it comes, good or bad. In the second verse, he reminisces about Hurricane Katrina hitting his hometown, but chooses to remember when kids would “Cannonball off the porch side, older kids trying off the roof.” Instead of cursing nature for the destruction, he tells us to “Kiss the Earth that birthed you, gave you tools just to stay alive.” While the song is overwhelmingly dreamy and has a positive outlook, it’s clear that this won’t be true of the rest of the album. Frank himself says, “It’s all downhill from here”.

 

  1. Be Yourself

Produced by Frank Ocean

Classic voicemail skit featuring some good advice from Frank’s mom about avoiding drugs and alcohol. The album deals a lot with these indulgences, and it takes him a while to come around, but it turns out mom was right. On the last song on the album, ‘Future Free,’ he says, “I ain’t smoked all year,” and apparently it’s helped.

 

  1. Solo

Produced by Frank Ocean

There’s a lot to like about this song. I love how it follows his mother’s voicemail warning, exploring the depths of human indulgence in sex, drugs, and relationships. Frank describes prostitution, heavy drug use, and losing his soul at an abortion clinic because “you gotta hit the pussy raw though”, coming to the conclusion that “in hell there’s heaven”. This song is an acknowledgement that even though self-indulgence is wrong, it can feel right. Aside from what’s happening lyrically here, this song really shines on a musical level.

I can’t get over the chords on this song. They’re amazing. The thick whirling electric piano creates an intimate and driving backdrop for Frank who effortlessly flows between the changes. Exposed by the minimal instrumentation, this track is a demonstration of what Frank can do vocally that he hasn’t displayed before. He’s singing with more force and is noticeably more comfortable on high notes. With new dimensions of dynamics at his disposal, Frank is really showing off how quickly and dramatically he can switch up his flow, going from near-rapping to all-out belting out of nowhere.

 

  1. Skyline To

Produced by Frank Ocean & Tyler, The Creator

I love the sleepy plucked guitar and hollowed out drums on this song. It isn’t the strongest on the album, but that is more a testament of the overall quality of the album than a slight against this song. Skyline To is sleepy, strange, and beautiful. From Frank’s infectious melodies to the whistling synthesizers from Tyler, to Kendrick Lamar’s ad-libs, there is a lot to enjoy here and I’m sure it will continue to grow on me.

 

  1. Self Control

Produced by Frank Ocean

Good god this song is really something special. It starts sounding like an acoustic ballad with some tasteful pitched vocals. This is one of the songs on the album where Frank really shows how much he’s grown vocally. His melodic lines when he sings “My self control” are forceful, precise, and unlike anything from his previous projects. I love the slow dreamy feel of this song and the way it builds from the stripped down instrumental to add resonant bass and vocal harmonies.

Hands down my favorite moment on the album arrives just before the three-minute mark. If I dare make the comparison, the way the harmonies dominate the end of the song when Frank sing-chants: “I, I, I / Know you gotta leave, leave, leave / Take down some summertime” reminds me of the gorgeous harmonies from the outro of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. On ‘Self Control,’ the harmonies are thick, powerful, yet have an other-worldly quality that still gives me goosebumps after umpteen listens. I have to be careful with this on the highway at night, I can’t help but push the speedometer.

 

  1. Good Guy

Produced by Frank Ocean

Good Guy comes as a much needed breather after the spiritual apex of ‘Self Control.’ I love the bedroom-esque feel of this track. This one is in the same category of his ‘Fertilizer’ cover from Channel Orange. Great, but way too short. If anything this song is a palate cleanser between two of the most ambitious tracks on the album.

 

  1. Nights

Produced by Frank Ocean, Michael Uzowuru, Buddy Ross & Vegyn

This my favorite song on the album. There has never been a time when this song comes on and I don’t turn the volume up to max. I just cannot listen to it quietly. The first half showcases some of Frank’s best sing-rapping yet. I can’t get enough of how he delivers, “hope you doing well bruh / everybody need you”. It’s like Frank is doing Drake better than Drake ever could. He balances being precise, forceful, and delicate while demanding your attention.

There is something extremely powerful about the hook to this song. The concept of dropping your significant other off before starting an overnight shift, knowing that your work prevents you from spending the night with them that inspires a strange kind of isolation and lonelines. I also can’t get over the line, “Wanna see nirvana, but don’t want to die.” Whether nirvana means short-term bliss through indulgence, or some kind of everlasting legacy through his work and music, it isn’t clear, but those two extremes seem to be at odds throughout the album.

The real magic revolves around the beat switch around the three-and-a-half minute mark. Thick bass and fluttering hi-hats back up Frank’s ethereally pitched vocals on one of the most musically satisfying moments of the album. The vocal production and delivery is absolutely perfect here, and I can’t get enough of the opening lines after the beat switch: “Every night fucks every day up / Every day patches the night up”. I could listen to the last two minutes of this song on repeat for hours. It’s got that strange combination of hypnotic and thrilling that I can’t get anywhere else.

 

  1. Solo (Reprise) (featuring Andre 3000)

Produced by Frank Ocean & Mike Dean

On my first listen this was one of the highlights for me. Now that I’ve settled into the album, it still stands out from the rest of the tracks, but not necessarily for the better. I appreciate the breath of fresh air from 3-Stacks, but this song hasn’t grown on me as dramatically as the rest of Blonde. I still enjoy it when it comes on, but I haven’t discovered anything new after the first few listens.

 

  1. Pretty Sweet

Produced by Frank Ocean

If you were looking for the oddball experimental track on the album, here it is. Even Frank’s opening lines reflect the balls-to-the-wall attitude of this song: “To the edge I’ll race / To the end I’ll make it / All the risk, I’ll take it”. Set apart from the sweetness and warmth of the other songs on the album, Pretty Sweet takes a dark turn with Frank and his “four friends” drawing a line between them and everyone against them, beating their chests daring anyone to try them.

While all this is going on the instrumentation on this song also contrasts the rest of the album with dissonant orchestral strings, distorted guitar, and an instrumental outro composed of a pulsating breakbeat, and strangely enough, a youth choir. I still can’t make complete sense of the song, and I don’t seek it out outside the context of the album, but I like the way it breaks up the slow, gentle vibe with a violent vengeance.

 

  1. Facebook Story

Produced by Sebastian

This is a super weird skit and I like it. It brings up a lot of questions about how and where people place value in online and offline relationships. It’s an interesting thought experiment. I can’t decide if the storyteller is being stubborn for not allowing their relationship to exist online, or if the girl is overly obsessive about her online identity. Either way, I think everybody needs to chill out.

 

  1. Close to You

Produced by Frank Ocean & Vegyn

Out of all the tracks on the album, this one left the smallest impression on me. The opening line: To be honest I wasn’t devastated” is great, but the rest of the interlude just isn’t that impactful for me.

 

  1. White Ferrari

Produced by Frank Ocean

This song has really grown on me. It’s not that I disliked it from the get go, I’ve just continued to discover new things to love about it over and over. I love the heavy soundscape filled with dense synths, sparse guitar, and tasteful backing vocals. Even though the song doesn’t have drums or a traditional baseline to drive, it doesn’t feel empty. In fact, I think any additional instrumentation or production would actually hold it back. It’s just right the way it is.

Frank’s melodies and lyrics are overwhelmingly tragic. He’s on a farewell drive, using the end of a lease as a metaphor for the end of a relationship. As he says, saying goodbye “was my part of the deal”. Frank loves cars, from the McLaren F1 GTR in the Nikes video, to the E30 M3 BMW on the cover of his first mixtape, to songs like ‘Acura Integurl,’ to the numerous references on tracks like ‘American Wedding’ and ‘Swim Good.’ This track is a perfect execution of that most American of metaphors, the automobile-as-love-interest, done in a way that makes it feel fresh as that new car smell.

 

  1. Seigfried

Produced by Frank Ocean & Bob Ludwig

This is the moment on the album where Frank completely breaks down. A combination of the attention he’s received from his music and his sexuality has put him at a difficult intersection. ‘Seigfried’ is about isolation, about feeling unable to be a public figure, a person who is expected to consistently release new material, while serving as a de-facto representative of the LGBTQ community. He debates leaving the limelight to “settle, two kids and a swimming pool,” feeling as though he’d rather live alone in the wilderness or alone in prison than deal with the masses and their expectations.

Halfway through the song Frank begins to spiral, first with drug-like symptoms and then with references to Elliott Smith’s drug-fueled suicide ballad, chanting the chorus, “It’s just a fond farewell to a friend”. At the bottom of the spiral, Frank calls back to the moment on ‘Nights,’ where he said he wanted to experience nirvana, but didn’t want to die in order to do so. Now, he describes that nirvana he was afraid to reach in a borderline-incoherent ramble.

Coming out of it, Frank reflects on the fleeting nature of life, putting his problems with fame and pressure into perspective. He asks, “why not spend this flammable paper on the film that’s my life?” Then he reminds himself that if he has money, there isn’t anything to gain by burning it when you can make something beautiful instead. He’s found the courage to face the music and I think that’s the revelation the album has been building towards. He now has the fortitude to shed all the bad habits and fond memories, to start fresh with a new perspective and purpose. While this isn’t the most musically memorable song here, it is the climactic narrative moment of the album.

 

  1. Godspeed

Produced by Frank Ocean

Following the saga of the previous track, Godspeed lends a tender and comforting tone to begin to close the album. Starting big with a swelling wall of piano and synthesizer, the song soon collapses into a warm electric piano as Frank belts “I will always love you”. It’s a powerful statement of affection, loyalty, and farewell. He is letting go of something precious with the reassurance that he will always carry the memory with him. This song is beautiful, peaceful, and I love it.

 

  1. Futura Free

Produced by Frank Ocean

I had to separate the outro from the song on this one. The interview with Frank’s younger brother at the end is poorly recorded, hard to follow, and I’m not sure what significance it has in the context of the album.

‘Futura Free’ bookends the end of Blonde much in the same way Nike’s did at the beginning. They’re both densely hazy with strange vocal effects. Putting all that aside, Frank spits some of his best verses on the album. Although Blonde is an incredibly revealing album musically, lyrically it’s quite ambiguous, except on this song. He addresses so much about his life. He addresses Jay-Z’s advice to take the high road after his scuffle with Chris Brown, being supported by Tyler, the Creator before he achieved success, and thanks his supporters directly, saying “They paying me momma / I should be paying them”. Even though Frank is revealing on this song, there are still moments that I still don’t understand. What’s the deal with the Tupac is alive reference? Why is there an interview with his little brother at the end? I’m not sure, but you can bet I’m going to keep listening to this album for months to see if the answers reveal themselves, and even if they don’t, I’d be okay with that.


Micah Roehlkepartain