Blonde and Endless
New Orleans-born and L.A.-raised Frank Ocean has been one of the most consistently interesting and mysterious pop stars of the 2010’s. After helping shape the sound of boundary-pushing and controversial L.A. rap collective Odd Future, Ocean released his first mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra in 2011. Frank Ocean was then highly featured and highly involved in the production of the blockbuster rap collaboration of Jay-Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne, before finally splashing with his debut album, Channel Orange. The album showcased Ocean as one of the brightest young songwriters around, echoing Prince and Stevie Wonder at their very best, and setting the groundwork for a legendary career as a singer and songwriter.
To add even more intrigue, Ocean came out in a letter on his website which corresponded almost directly with Channel Orange’s album release. Then Ocean pretty much disappeared from the spotlight for four years, before suddenly teasing a new album titled Boys Don’t Cry to release August 12th. The day came and went, and then a week later, Ocean dropped two albums on Apple Music, a visual album called Endless and Blonde, the studio follow-up to Channel Orange. He also ended up releasing a Boys Don’t Cry zine that he released for sale at various music stores around the country which includes an entirely different version of Blonde. I guess the extra week was worth the wait. So after four years, was it really worth all the wait and hype? Yes and no.
I’ll start with no. The answer would be no mostly from the standpoint that neither Blonde nor Endless is the pop smash album that everyone was salivating for. In a world that demands social buzz and meme-ability, Frank Ocean provided a mood album set to the building of a staircase in black and white (not exactly sharable) and a fairly low-key, vulnerable release in Blonde lacking any big hits or beats (not exactly a Drake or Taylor Swift record). Blonde is also filled with a handful of skits (which people almost never like) and also a star-studded cast (Beyoncé, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell) though you can barely identify their imprint beyond Andre 3000 of Outkast’s starburst of a rap on “Solo (Reprise).”
But really the answer now and over the long haul will be yes. Endless and Blonde are most certainly slow burns, but full of novel musical ideas, their own undeniable sound, and a vulnerability that so few artists can reach.
Endless largely feels more like a table-setter, which is how it was used on the two albums release weekend coming out the night before Blonde. It’s melodies don’t burn as bright, and without any easy track list to grab, it stands as more of a mood statement and conversation piece than anything. There are still notable moments. “U-N-I-T-Y” has Frank flashing his rap skills for really the first and only time on both Blonde and Endless. At the album’s close, Frank splits into Pet Shop Boys mode on “Higgs”, a chic, bass-heavy form of new wave which really breaks the album up for its most hypnotic stretch. It’s a very varied album but feels very seamless and of one piece even if a little less memorable than Blonde.
Blonde feels like the proper follow-up to Channel Orange and where Ocean focused his time and energy: the production is crisp and exact, everything feels as it should be, where Endless feels more like a mix tape of sorts. Lead single “Nike” definitely sets the tone of the beautifully spare sound to expect on Blonde: processed but expressive vocals, bright and airy arrangements, and mood-led songs lacking the major hooks of Nostalgia Ultra and Channel Orange. You won’t find yourself singing choruses but rather getting little moments and lines stuck in your head: it’s certainly catchy if unconventionally so.
While other black artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are making bold statements about the unjust world we find ourselves in, Frank Ocean isn’t focused on racial injustice beyond the occasional empathetic passing line on Blonde (“R.I.P. Trayvon, that n**ga look just like me”). That doesn’t make Ocean’s album any less ambitious: Ocean feels like the millennial descendant of Stevie Wonder to me. He’s making music that fits well in this world and this time, but it’s soft-hearted, musically sophisticated, and ultimately exploring a brighter future. If Channel Orange was his Songs In the Key of Life, Blonde is his Innervisions but without the funk and the hits. The slightly strange-sounding ballads like “Ivy”, “Nights”, and “White Ferrari” really feel like something Stevie could have released if he was born 40 years later.
Frank also brings the church into his music like Stevie especially on “Skyline To” and “Godspeed”. He sings with an open-voice that is pretty rare to find outside gospel and truly draws you in. “Godspeed” opens with a piano line that sounds like it could be worship anthem “Revelation Song” before splitting into the open-armed love song it is. All the weird production tricks serve as an interesting counter to the nakedness of Ocean’s voice: he remains vulnerable and open to love even as the noise attempts to break him.
I’ve said this before, but the most interesting work being done these last few years is in R&B. Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, Bon Iver, FKA Twigs, Thundercat and even Kendrick to some extent (though he’s pushing hip hop and beyond) are making timeless and timely artistic statements both musically and lyrically. Frank Ocean isn’t looking to make the big attention-grabbing statement, but is special for just being himself.