2016 has been a great year for music, be that Hip Hop, Pop or R&B, many records have been broken, accolades received and impacts made of the lives of listeners worldwide. As an avid listener of all genres, we find ourselves at this time every year where the question “what is your album of the year?” begins to arise. Some find it easy whilst others find it tremendously difficult, and I most definitely am the latter. When creating a shortlist, an album of the year will be different for everybody, as music for some people acts just as a tool to fill silence in a room, whilst for others, it becomes a soundtrack to a certain time or becomes memorable due to an event that occurred alongside you listening to it. After careful consideration in a year filled with so much greatness in musical content I have managed to narrow it down to Frank Oceans ‘Blonde’.
ChannelORANGE saw Frank Ocean as a storyteller but with Blonde, he became the story. This year Frank solidified himself as a musical revolutionist, a figure who made his name by discharging social categorisation, confounding idealism and carelessly blurring the norms of musical instrumentation and sexuality; and in doing this, he has become the voice for an emotionally oppressed youth.
As an artist and throughout his career, one thing is clear; Frank challenges the normative functions of society, in such a melodic way, through an outlet, which is safe to say, is wholly expressed through his own, self made genre.
It all started in early August. As the pinnacle of summer was reached, its closure saw a thread of cryptic, riddling tumblr posts, which sparked social media attention, with all types of music enthusiasts commencing in discussion of a possible return from an icon who had gone missing for four years. This was heightened when his website presented a mysterious video stream which captured Frank alone in a simplistic workshop, working towards what eventually become ‘Endless’, a short film which was made available online, consisting of what felt like a half finished explanation to his disappearance. Comprising of a set of eighteen tracks, most under the two-minute mark; it left most fans puzzled, with the consensus receiving it as more of an anti-climax if anything.
This lead to further discussion on social media, music blogs and websites worldwide where yet more deliberation arose. Could ‘Endlesss’ have been another way for Frank to reinforce the importance of patience to his fans, insisting that the best was yet to come? Such questions led to disappointment from fans, but maybe it was a tool of foreshadowing to say that the unfinished, short tracks were instead an internal message to suggest a more complete body of work was in fact to follow; and it only took a day to find out.
A post appeared on Franks blog, stating that four pop up stores will open in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and London. There were very few details other than this, but the ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ branding and aesthetic had fans assuming this would in fact finally be an opportunity to purchase a physical copy of the much anticipated album that die hards have been so desperate for.
Then, another revelation. Just after midnight on the 21st of August a string of tweets and photos surfaced on Twitter showing the pop up stores in their entirety, with proof of a metallically packaged zine which inside contained poetry coupled with nostalgic photography of art which resonate with the albums content. What fans would find as they flicked through further was a page and affixed to it was a CD containing an album entitled ‘Blonde’, stylised in certain images as the masculine alternative ‘Blond’, giving the body of work a duality in gender perspective.
Shortly after, Apple music announced the availability of the album and the social media centred world, as we know it, erupted.
A 17 track LP with a number of skits emerged and Frank Ocean fans were finally presented with a body of work that was four years in the making. The first track and lead single ‘Nikes’ opened the album with a satirical play on words ‘These bitches want Nikes, they looking for a cheque’, but also carries other themes, speaking on the police brutality we have seen over the years in America, specifically that of 17 year old Trayvon Martin who Ocean seems to have a connection with by stating how he sees a resemblance in Travyons face with his own. The disparity of themes and issues in this track alone are used by Frank as a way of highlighting how the issue of a consumerist youth in such a social media hungry realm can shy them away from the more real life issues in society, which he exemplifies thorough his use of juxtaposition as a possible way of trying to express how this generation of young adults need to be more in touch with current societal events around them as opposed to being influenced by materialistic goals which sadly seem to be more imposing…a possible explanation perhaps, though a reasonably rational one at that.
With all this being said, the dominating theme of the album is romance and through each track we can feel the four years worth of pain Frank has endured since ChannelORANGE released, but behind that lays a glimmer of growth and self-appreciation. It is evident that Frank has experienced heartache, depicting the highs and lows of love through a riff filled and at times “hotel lobby” sounding psychedelic pop soundtrack. Tracks such as ‘Ivy’ strip Frank down from his celebrity status and present him at a more vulnerable, human level, where by we are taken through the motions of what it feels like to be loved; although other album licks such as ‘Solo’ shine a light on a more lonely, reculsive Frank, a more self reflecting character who, accompanied only by his marijuana is left to ponder on his own thoughts, epitomising the concept of conscious narrative. Other themes of innocence and youth give the album a kaleidoscopic aura, filling you with self reflection and sentimentality, which strangely make you warm to Frank as a human being, almost like a friend does as you find yourself venting aloud in your mind as he spills his into your ears.
Aside from the depths in each individual track, Blonde offers some more light-hearted skits. The first is Franks mother, who is speaking to a college day Frank where she expresses her concern over his lifestyle, discouraging him from marijuana and alcohol. The satire here is also present in the other skits; for instance ‘Facebook Love’ speaks of the insecurities that arise in relationships at the hands of social media and the last ‘Solo Reprise’ which features the infamous André 3000 who expresses his thoughts on the state of the music industry right now, with debatable jabs at fellow industry men. What brings these all together though is a social issue of ones perception of another in a generation where thoughts, opinions and actions are heavily influenced by others and how this can lead to the ultimate downfall in happiness, something which Frank himself has obviously experienced.
A standout for me is “Nights”. A summer felt country-rock melody transforms into a smooth piano section with a trance-like feel where Frank switches between singing and rapping his lyrics. The second part of the track documents the struggle Frank and his family endured after hurricane Katrina hit his hometown in 2005, which resultantly rehoused his family to Houston and with this, he transferred from the University of New Orleans, where he enrolled in 2005, to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The main struggle documented in his song, though, is his love interest and his willingness to make things work despite the hardships around him; the lines “your apartment out in Houstons where I waited, stayin’ with you when I didn’t own a mattress” really takes us back to Franks first few experiences in love. Another track ‘Seigfried’ really sums up the project, the imagery it creates makes you picture a hurting Frank alone in his studio, penning the track as it comes to mind. The minimalistic instrumentation acts as a way to force the listener to absorb his words, which once again reinforces his amazing anecdotal writing ability. He goes on to speak on his use of magic mushrooms which bring his words to life; he raps – “dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dreamer that thought”; displaying his vivid wordplay even in a drug-influenced state, yet an incredibly reflective one as he shows how he uses drugs as an escape from the sad reality he lived during the events he depicts, thickening the theme of the album even further.
What makes Blonde so different to ChannelORANGE is its contrasting sounds on almost every track. With so much talent behind the scenes ranging from Pharrell Williams to Kanye West to James Blake, it makes for an eclectic listening experience, which works, as each track seems to flow on to the next so smoothly. One thing that is consistent though, is the sincerity in Frank’s voice, a voice that is averse to falseness, which is what makes his fans feel so close to him, by the way they are able to use his music as a tool to overcome their own personal hardships by listening to his. What makes this album so great is the societal issues Frank speaks upon; from police brutality, to drug use to even elements of depression and heavy themes of loneliness at the hands of love. With this being said, love is the key word; and Frank used this to break a social barrier through his music. His sexuality was something that his fans were confused about when it broke, though his absence left them with no real clarity. In response, he created an album based upon life experiences we face as humans through the expression of love without focusing on a specific genders perspective, showing how universal love is, regardless of your sexual orientation and that once this is understood, as humans we can relate to one another and learn to become more open minded. To heighten this further is Franks display of the spectrum of love and how it can have you feeling so jubilant on tracks like ‘Ivy’ to extremely sombre through tracks like ‘Solo’ and even more so in ‘White Ferrari’ where he expresses his deep regrets in a relationship which although has ended, his deep feelings remain as he questions himself.
Ultimately, it seems as if Frank does this for a greater purpose, to show how easy it is to fall in and out of love and with that enter both your highest yet also your lowest points, but at the end of the day, his reflective tone that is present throughout the entire project, is that self love overcomes this all and at the end of the day, the only person who will lift you from emotional turmoil is yourself; something which Frank Ocean did with Blonde, epitomising the importance of self worth to a generation led by the ideals of others.