Where have you been Frank?
The elusive Frank Ocean is more than human. He is a connector and a storyteller who has been through it all, seemingly along side each and every one of us. His music brings a familiarity that is eerie but exhilarating. His albums are saturated with tracks that somehow remain fresh countless plays later. First with nostalgia, ULTRA, and then with the grammy winning album Channel Orange, Frank Ocean has taken his listeners on a journey into the past; one that is relatable to everyone who gives his music the attention it deserves. Now, after 4 years of waiting, Frank Ocean has finally released Blonde. As the newest addition to his discography, this album proves to be another evolution from where he was with Channel Orange. However, this jump in artistry has left some asking, “What happened to the old Frank Ocean? Where are the radio hits?”
On the first listen through this album, I had the same questions go unanswered. I was waiting for the “Super Rich Kids” or “Swim Good” of this record to emerge immediately. But, the secret to this album is not how easy it is to decipher. On the contrary, the complexity of the album, both musically and lyrically, is the magic that proves Blonde is a step forward in Frank Ocean’s Career. It was an album that left me curious. I knew Frank killed it, so why didn’t I love the album? Such curiosity led to countless repetitions of all of his work in it’s entirety. nostalgia, ULTRA, Channel Orange, and Blonde was the only music coming through my earphones and speakers for weeks. Only after 25 revolutions through the latest project in full, did I appreciate Blonde for what it is, a masterpiece.
Frank’s musical progression: Walking, Sprinting, Flying
Before we can understand why Frank made Blonde the way he did, I want to look back at his growth from mixtape to album up to now. Born Christopher Edwin Breaux in 1987 in New Orleans, Frank always wanted to record. Unfortunately, in 2005, he moved to LA to pursue his dream to work in music after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the recording studio where he worked. He began ghost-writing for notable artists such as John Legend, Justin Bieber, and Beyonce to get his feet set while working blue collar jobs.
“There was a point where I was composing for other people, and it might have been comfy to continue, but thats not why I moved away from school and away from my family.”
After some time working in the record industry, he became friends with Tyler the Creator, joined Odd Future, and eventually got signed to Def Jam. All of this is necessary background for his debut project nostalgia, ULTRA. The album is most known for the single “Novacane” and notable tracks “Swim Good” and “We All Try”. However, the mixtape is clearly his first swing at making hits. Frank uses instrumentals from Coldplay, MGMT, and the Eagles to shape the debut project. In nearly all aspects he is testing his own brand of hit songs. He takes what has worked for other artists and adds his own lyrical persona. This mixtape is far beyond baby steps, but he is yet to walk entirely on his own two feet.
Frank released nostalgia,ULTRA by himself due to some issues with his label. Yet, due to the album’s overwhelming success, Def Jam welcomed him back with open arms to begin his debut studio record Channel Orange. Furthermore, Kanye and Jay-Z flew him out to work on Watch the Throne, in which he helped put together two tracks, one of them being “No Church in the Wild”. One could say he was coming into his own.
After only one year, Frank released what was to become the holy grail of his work, Channel Orange. I could write an entire article praising this album, but there are millions that flood the web already. So instead, I’ll just say that it is in my top 10 albums of all time. Something that will never get old to listen to. Music that I could play for anyone, and music that everyone appreciates. An absolute treasure. A solid gold mark that Frank Ocean can make some of the best pop songs ever created. In other words, Frank Ocean went from walking to competing as an Olympic sprinter.
Boys Don’t Cry, Blonde: A Breakdown
To evaluate Blonde by itself would be a complete shame to the rest of the art that he produced alongside it. Endless served as the appetizer for Frank’s return. It served as a cool warning of the different type of content that is to come. Music and Art that wouldn’t be immediately understood, but would be beautiful nonetheless. “Comme des Garcons” at 11:18 and part of “Mitsubishi Sony” at 36:34, some of the best songs on the project, are apart of Endless. The Black and White color scheme is an allusion to the past and future motif in Blonde. The spiral staircase that is built represents Frank’s ascension beyond the realm of peer pressure. It is a stairway to pure personal creativity and expression. “Higgs”, the finale of the video, has the futuristic quality of the space travel he achieves with the piece.
In his magazine “Boys Don’t Cry” – commonly (and comically) referred to as “zine” – Frank features poetry from collaborators Tyler the Creator, Kanye West, and more. Content ranges from models to website histories. But, the overwhelming majority of it can be connected to Frank’s obsession with cars. The magazine starts with a personal note written by Frank for his fans. He touches on his inspiration for the album, as well as what he’s been doing these past couple years. The whole piece can be found here, but the first paragraph talks about a picture that sparked his inspiration.
Two years ago I found an image of a kid with her hands covering her face. A seatbelt reached across her torso, riding up her neck and a mop of blonde hair stayed swept, for the moment, behind her ears. Her eyes seemed clear and calm but not blank, the road behind her seemed the same. I put myself in her seat then I played it all out in my head. The claustrophobia hits as the seatbelt tightens, preventing me from even leaning forward in my seat. the pressing on internal organs. I lean back and forward to release it. Then backwards and forward again. There it is—I got free. How much of my life has happened inside of a car?
The stories that Frank talks about in Blonde directly relate to how he saw himself in the girl’s position. The claustrophobia of the seatbelt is the media and world pressuring him for music and information. People begging to follow him, to clarify his existence for themselves act as the seatbelt. The eyes and mirror are a reference to his understanding of himself, and the joy from his past. Finally, to escape seatbelt claustrophobia, to move forward in life and love, is to lean back into the past and then move forward. In Blonde, Frank takes us through his own seatbelt struggle for freedom with his music and himself.
His album is a rollercoaster of emotion set across a backdrop of ambient, abstract sounds. Of course, his voice cuts through it all to hit home, but this album is not the radio-hit-singles-machine that Channel Orange, or even nostalgia, ULTRA are. This was an album where the music mimicked his own internal confusion as he made the album. Frank splashed stories of his past to highlight the tribulations of his present throughout. Song like “Nikes” express the frustration with todays culture. The people ask for real when they themselves are fake.
This is the contradiction that rings true in todays society, and of course, Frank points it out with perfection. “Facebook Story” is a perfect example of this. What makes this album more than a social commentary, though, is the way Frank uses his memories of the past to highlight the troubles of today. “Pink + White” is the perfect example of the way he was taught to love no matter if “The sky is pink and white, or if the ground is black and yellow”. The way he used to love, his life before the fame, and the beautiful simplicity of a car-ride conversation are highlighted with the artistic quality that only Frank, and a handful of others, posses.
The fans of Frank were waiting for something different, something that would blow Channel Orange away. Any real fans knows they got exactly what they were waiting for. Who needs pop songs anyway? The only thing I want is more Frank. But for now, I’m content.