The story behind an album is always interesting to hear, the meaning behind the imagery painted in the songs is what shows us the beautiful worlds artists create. Frank Ocean isn’t just a master of storytelling through sounds, but a master of storytelling through words.
Before Blonde, Ocean had released his mixtape Nostalgia, ULTRA, featuring hit singles “Swim Good” and “Novacane”, and his debut studio album Channel Orange, which included the singles “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pyramids”. Ocean had self-released Nostalgia, ULTRA and was then signed to Def Jam Recording which he released Channel Orange. Billboard states that ,“the relationship between the singer and the label was like a ‘bad marriage.’” After Channel Orange was released in 2012, Ocean went silent. No word from him except for occasional and mysterious posts on his Tumblr. Years would past and still no word from Ocean about any new music. Finally, in April of 2015 Ocean posts a picture of him sitting next to two stacks of magazines with the title Boys Don’t Cry.” People were freaking out over this post, but not because of the photo itself, but because of the caption, “I got two versions. I got twooo versions…#ISSUE1 #ALBUM3 #JULY2015 #BOYSDONTCRY.” Ocean was finally coming back into the music scene with a new album in July. Everyone was excited, but then, July rolls around, no album. The whole month of July went by and…. nothing. There was no album, no new music, life went on and Ocean was silent once again. A few more false claims came along the way to the release of the album and it would get peoples hopes up just to let them down again. But, people would believe the claims of an album release every time out of desperation for new music. Then something strange happened. In July of 2016, a year after the first claim, a mysterious live stream appeared on Apple Music. It was said to be “the equivalent of staring at a blank screen and, yet, here we are, actively participating.” The people were more excited than ever because this was real evidence of an album. Apple Music said that the new album Boys Don’t Cry will be exclusively on their platform for two weeks then it will be released to the public. But, once again, no album. People were getting frustrated, things kept hinting towards an album but there was never anything at the end of every wait they were put through. When was this new album coming? August 19, 2016, a date that shook the world before it fell apart just 24 hours later. Endless was released, finally, the third album from Ocean himself. People went mad over the tracks and were so happy that his third project had finally released. What was once thought to be Boys Don’t Cry was nowhere in what we know now as Endless.
But Ocean wasn’t done. Ocean released Endless through Def Jam recordings which finally fulfilled his contract of two studio albums. Ocean was free, Endless had cut the ties with Def Jam for him. We all excepted Ocean to disappear again after Endless, Ocean was free so why wouldn’t he stop now? Less than 24 hours after the release of Endless, Frank Oceans self-released album, Blonde, made the world crumble at his fingertips.
Blonde, 17 tracks representing Oceans mind, a mind that sounds like love, fatigue, loss, sex, worry, dreams, memories and friendship. Not only just the lyrics on this album compelling and beautiful, but the instrumentals are too. The sophistication of this album is something new that was only hinted at in Oceans previous discography. He takes us into a world that is hard to bear sometimes while still remaining beautiful and full of love and hope. The human essence is the block of marble waiting for Michelangelo to find it’s true form. Ocean is the Michelangelo that revealed the true form of the human emotion, for us to experience, for us to admire, for us to see the beauty in flaws, the perfection of imperfection.
The album opens up with the song “Nikes” it begins with beautiful chords from a celestial synthesizer and a constant drumbeat, echoing, making pleasant but mysterious breathing space. In the intro you can hear what seems to be a video game cartridge being put into a console, this is a constant detail in all of Ocean’s project. This seemed like a call back to Nostalgia, ULTRA and Channel Orange because they both open with noises of a game being put into the console to then play the sound of the video game Street Fighter. This could be the same noise, in which, it continues the small references to video games. Ocean comes in with pitched up vocals, this was to represent the adolescence of the narrator in the song. The last few lines of the first half of the song state,
We don’t talk much or nothin’
But when we talkin’ about something
We have good discussion
I met his friends last week, feels like they’re up to something
That’s good for us
This is referring to the “shallowness of relationships in today’s society” and how people are too selfish and don’t want conversation, they just want what feels good, they don’t want anything that makes them work hard. There is a pause between the words “good” and “discussion,” this signifies that the narrator isn’t knowledgeable about what this relationship is in its true form, they try to have conversation but it never seems to work. After this half of the song we transition from the world of adolescence to maturity, we hear a beautiful ascension of a harp accompanied by an arrangement of strings to quiet the mood to represent the stillness that realizations of maturity bring to the narrator, Oceans voice is normal pitch now and there is a faint acoustic guitar riff in the background. The entire second half of the song is an entirely new world for the same narrator. He understands pain more, he understands the love that he didn’t have in his early years, he’s still lost but he’s figured more things out. The story moves to a sad place, a place where the narrator doesn’t have any love reciprocation in his life. The narrator is described to be grasping for love, he’s having meaningless sex and staying with someone to try and feel the real love he knows is waiting for him. The narrator states, “I’m not him, but I’ll mean something to you,” which shows that the narrator knows the person he loves doesn’t love him back, but he’s grasping so hard he just can’t let go, in which the same drums from the adolescent part of song come back in representing that he still has that childlike hope about love, even when he knows this love isn’t his.
“Ivy” and “Pink and White“ are the follow-up tracks to the albums stunning introduction. “Ivy“ starts with a beautiful flange guitar and bass riff, there are no drums in this track making it feel spacey or dream-like. This song explores more of the innocence of childhood and how everything was good even when it wasn’t and worries were small clouded by the good memories. The song opens up with the line,
I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,
again exploring the idea of young love and how it felt to the narrator. But, later in the song the narrator says,
I broke your heart last week you’ll probably feel better by the weekend,
which, again, explores the theme of unreciprocated love even when it felt real, the narrator felt like he was in a dream in this love and he later found out that’s all it was, he feels that even though he hurt the other person they won’t really care because it didn’t mean that much to them. He explores the memories of childhood and the good times, like driving late at night and not caring about a lot of things, just having fun. The narrator keeps remembering the good times then talking about how much his life has changed since then, this is shown clearly in the lines,
We didn’t give a fuck back then
I ain’t a kid no more
We’ll never be those kids again
This is the theme throughout the whole song and it’s evident that the narrator is stuck in nostalgia. The very last lines of the song are pitched up to, once again, represent adolescence. The very last line of the song states,
I’ve been dreaming… dreaming.
The narrator is stuck in the dream where the person he loves feels the same. After the sounds of confused buzzing and clanking end the song, the cinematic strings of “Pink and White” bring us to a new world. This track has a constant and raw beat accompanied by beautiful strings, piano, and guitar. It sounds like a movie, a movie that the narrator is apart of, something that doesn’t seem real. The beautiful instrumentation isn’t dream-like, it’s starting to become more real life. It still has dreamlike qualities but now it’s rawer. This song explores once again the realization of life. The narrator is now aware that this is his life, he states,
That’s the way every day goes, every time we’ve no control.
This shows that he’s accepted where he is and that he knows he has no control of a lot of things that happen in his life. The narrator isn’t afraid of things he can’t control anymore. He knows that this life is his and he can do things to make him happy but he knows that he can’t control everything. He realizes that the pain is inevitable and he is going to embrace it now instead of hiding from it because this is his life and he is going to make the most of it. The ending of the song fades out and we heard birds singing in the background making the reality of this even greater, I love this addition to the song because it just makes the feeling of reality pretty even when it seems painful. There’s always something beautiful to notice over the pain.
Ocean presents us with two very contradicting tracks. After “Pink and White“, we hear a simple electric piano loop of the song “Be Yourself“. It’s comforting to hear the keys play a beautiful pattern when you listen to this song you’ll hear a continuation of the birds chirping in the very beginning. Overall of this beautiful yet simple instrumental we hear a mother’s voice on a phone explicitly talking about the dangers of drugs. She’s telling her son that he shouldn’t do those things because they change you, she’s encouraged to be himself and to make his own decisions and not to let others influence his decisions. She ends the call by saying, “this is the mom, call me, bye.” Everything falls silent for not even a second. “Hand me a towel I’m dirty dancing by myself… gone off tabs of that acid.” The first lines of the next track “Solo“ are about using LSD which is in complete opposition to the previous words of advice that we get to hear in “Be Yourself“. There is a simplicity to this song is something that compliments the theme of the story and the title of the song. The whole song the only instrument is an organ accompanied by Oceans voice and an unknown female voice, the second verse there is a strange synthesizer accompanying the organ but it cuts out towards the end, a small detail that makes all the difference. The main story in this song is that the narrator doesn’t want to be single, or “solo.” He is struggling with life by himself and he longs for someone to be with and to cope with the solo life he completely ignores the advice in the last track and resorts to drugs to compensate for the feeling of being alone. He’s just lost still, lost and by himself.
“Skyline to“ has to be one of the most engrossing songs on the album. It’s not the best song, but it’s beautiful in its own new way. This song, in particular, stands out because of the instrumentals (Which were co-produced by Tyler, the Creator). It starts with Oceans vocals only accompanied by ambient sounds of a forest. A simple electric guitar and drums that sound as if they were underwater. About a minute in the instruments become fuller, more present and noticeably beautiful. Oceans vocals are a highlight of this track, there are so many layers and so much detail in the vocals that it makes you tingle. This track is focusing on how time gets faster as you get older. Time seems just to be gliding by with no major significant changes.
Summers not as long as it used to be,
is the one statement that represents exactly how it feels to be growing up. The track ends with beautiful synthesizers over the dreamlike instrumentation to then transition into the words,
“Poolside convo about your summer last night, oh yeah
About your summer last night.”
This is the beginning of the track “Self Control“, a track about loss and memories. The beginning vocals are pitched up, once again representing adolescence. The songs first half is beautiful guitar work done by guitarist, Alex G, simple, but complementary to the soulful vocals executed by Ocean. This song tells a wonderful story of heartbreak and it sounds like a farewell. It is emotional in every part and beautiful in every ounce of pain. Possibly one of the most painful lines in the whole album is in this song,
Keep a place for me, for me
I’ll sleep between Y’all, it’s nothing.
The narrator in this song knows that he’s out of the picture from this person’s life, but he’s begging to keep his place in that person’s heart, he’s even willing to sleep between them, just to be close to the person he speaks of, even if that person isn’t really there for him. The guitar solo in this song is perfectly performed, It sounds as if someone is crying deeply. This then leads into the last section of the song that is layered to the brim with pain. Self control is the most alluring representation of pain in sounds and in words that this album has to offer. But the pain doesn’t stop there, the noise is deeply present in the rawest track on the album titled “Good Guy“ and the simplicity is real and sweet.
And to you it’s just a late night out,
this shows that the narrator is in a constant state of feeling unreciprocated love and this song is no exception, he knows that this person he is with thinks nothing of this night with the narrator, it’s another night, nothing else, we get pain in it’s most complex form to then be followed by pain in it’s simplest form, pain is pain. Unreciprocated love is the most painful thing to the narrator, it leaves him alone in the dark.
Ocean sings of a new beginning, a confident rise of the narrator appears after all this pain, a refreshing point in the story. “Nights.“ This song is a long story about a relationship that is failing now, the struggles of the narrator’s life, and living life through all the rough nights. This song is full of lyrical acrobatics that I could very well dive deeply into, but I am going to leave the interpretation of the lyrics up to the readers. What I really want to focus on is the three sections of mesmerizing instrumentals. The two main beats are very simple loops that play for a big portion of the song. The first beat is compiled of static and frantic guitar chords and a constant drumbeat. It is accompanied by Oceans voice spitting a flow that is different and refreshing from past projects we’ve heard him rap on. It compliments the instruments very well and makes you feel like you’re feeling exactly what the narrator is feeling. Then leading into the next section of the song we start to hear the drumbeat break down to then cutting out completely and the appearance of eerie synthesizers that make it sound like we are in a portal leading to another world. The portal is then switched to rough sounding guitar riffs that are dissonant and laggy, this goes on for a few seconds so that we have time to prepare for the new story that Ocean is about to take us to. The guitar cuts abruptly and we hear what sounds like a gust of wind blow us into the next beat. This beat is a constant drumbeat like the last and quiet and beautiful electric piano chords. Oceans voice is pitched up a couple semitones to fit perfectly into the lighter and calmer beat that we ’re introduced to. This song is one of the simplest sonically, but one of the most complicated compositions wise. There are so many parts that fit like the last pieces to the puzzle that you’ve been working on for longer than you can remember. Its a breath of fresh air and a beautiful portal to the second part of Blonde.
The second half of the album starts out with something familiar but also completely new. “Solo (Reprise)“ is an interesting track. Oceans vocals are nowhere to be found, instead, we get a verse from the rapper, Andre 3000. This track is fast, an upbeat rant from Andre 3000 about what he’s tired of in the world. He speaks of how he’s tired of the rap game now and how most people don’t write their own verses. He speaks of how he is tired of the hypocrisy he sees in women that have fake body parts but require a real man to please them. He speaks of how tired he is and how annoyed he is with all the corruption in the world today. This next song, “Pretty Sweet“, is the stand out track in every way. Not because it’s the best song or the most intricate one, but because the sonics and the lyrics all mean something we haven’t explored yet on this album. The track starts out with messy sounding instrumentation with vocals from Ocean mixed in with everything. It then all cuts out to guitar strums and layered vocals that sound heavenly. One of the lines states,
Mothers of us be kind.
This is because this song is exploring the narrator’s bisexuality. He discusses in this song that he sees both sides and that he is relieved to finally be able to be open with it. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks about it either because he is secure with himself. This track is interrupted by fast drum sounds and then ends with a children’s chorus. It’s short with powerful sounds and words. We hear the voice of what we presume to be a French man, speaking about a girl he used to date, this is all over the piano track we heard earlier in the song “Be yourself“. This track is the second interlude of spoken word on the album titled, “Facebook Story“. This is a story about a man and his failed relationship because of the false ideas the virtual world puts into peoples minds. This mans girlfriend wanted him to accept her on the social media site and he said no because he didn’t see why he needed to do that when he sees her every day, he knew the virtual world meant nothing but she didn’t. She assumed that he was cheating on her because he refused to friend her. A long relationship was ruined just because he wouldn’t accept her friendship in the virtual world even though they had a relationship in the real world. A sad and dumbfounding story.
This iconic album pays many tributes to other icons in the music world. The Beatles, Radiohead, David Bowie, and many more contributed to the influence for the album. Stevie Wonder, one of the most acclaimed musicians of all time, performs a song on a tv show in 1972 that featured a machine called a talk box, which allows your voice and your instrument to sound as if they are one. It was a beautiful balled that Ocean took inspiration from and sampled it to put in the track, “Close to You“. This song is about moving on. He preaches, “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t devastated,” telling his past lover that yes he’s sad about their separation, but it didn’t crush him. He knows there’s no point in trying to stay and get his lover back, he knows that it’s over. It’s a sad story about moving on, but also a quiet triumph. This song ends with Stevie Wonders voice singing,
Just like me, they long to be close to you.
We then hear the drums fade and then the next track starts with no warning. “White Ferrari.“ I don’t want to go into detail on this song. It is pure emotion. It isn’t the most intricate, the most mesmerizing, or the most alluring song, but its beautiful. Pure beauty in emotion. The song bears painful lines about memories of the good times the narrator and his lover had and how that it was hard to go through all that pain. Ocean sings lines like,
I care for you still and I will, forever
you left when I forgot to speak,
to evoke a sense of cleanliness coexisting with impurity. The love was so strong that it will last forever but it wasn’t communicated like the narrator wanted it to be. It died out. It left him with the perfect painful, but good, memories. This isn’t a track that needs directing because when you try to dissect the human emotion and narrow it down to one explanation then you allow the beauty to lose its meaning. This song isn’t perfect, it isn’t the best, but it’s purely imperfect, pleasantly painful, and full of happy memories that make us sad. It is what we know as the human emotion.
“Seigfried“, the next track on the album is a beautiful composition of guitar, strings, and synthesizers. The vocals performed by Ocean are very moving, the ad-libs in the song add to the beauty and make the whole sound seem atmospheric. When you listen to the whole album you realize that this piece of art is very guitar heavy. The guitar is simple in this song but one of my favorites, it is a simple progression but the sound is so striking to the ear that it just sticks in your head and makes you feel like you’re asleep. This particular song feels very cinematic and poetic. This particular song ends with the spoken word and the repetition of a line that Staes,
I’d do anything for you in the dark.
This line has many interpretations and is possibly one of the most vivid lines that you’ll hear throughout this musical gallery. This then moves into the second to last track on the album, “Godspeed“. It begins with airy chords and panning synthesizer sounds, Oceans vocals come in preaching along with a church-like organ saying,
I will always love you, how I do, let go of a prayer for you.
This line is meant to represent the love that the narrator will always have for his childhood, specifically the person that he was in love with, he tells them that even though they aren’t together anymore he wishes them the best. This song cuts out all instruments at the end and showcases a single woman’s voice singing,
I will always love you, until the time we die.
Heartbreaking and beautiful like everything about the story that was presented to you in the musical masterpiece we call, Blonde.
Ocean ends this gallery with the song “Futura Free“. This beautiful outro is accompanied by a gritty piano, beautiful vocals, a beat that shakes your head, people having a conversation, to silence. Then we hear the piano that we heard in the songs “Be yourself“ and “Facebook story“, under the sounds of people being interviewed, asked random questions about their life. It shows the individuality of each person. It is, once again, the human emotion.
Blonde isn’t just a compilation of songs. It is a showcase for the mind of a person, a real person who has felt pain, love, lust, loss, and everything else that we as humans feel. It represents pain and love through sounds and words and makes us feel them along with the narrator of the story. It’s a masterpiece for the mind to admire. Ocean is a master of connecting to the heart through composition and storytelling. So much work was put into this album and so much emotion was painted on it, it shows that life is beautiful, even when it’s painful, things are perfectly imperfect and that’s ok. Ocean is the curator for a gallery we never really understood until he explained it to us, Blonde is the human emotion.
Review by Ethan Montano