“Inhale, in hell, there’s heaven.”
Such was the heart sigh that echoed through the empty, cavernous salvation of Blonde, Frank Ocean’s new album self-released Saturday on Apple Music, one of two major Frank Ocean album releases in the past week.
With a release shrouded in mystery, four years after his earth-shattering Channel Orange, Blonde rises above and transcends the hype of those years of patience sheerly with his staggering musicality and songwriting.
Gone are the PlayStation noises, Dante-esque structural schemas and the subtle social critiques. In Blonde, Ocean cuts away the fat and finds lean, brutally honest art at the core of his creative vision.
Up to now, Ocean has never been known to write about himself, instead singing as someone else or about something else. He’s always once-removed from his work, always singing through a proxy lens. Frank Ocean was a shadow puppeteer making commentary, silently and meticulously crafting his vision through the use of other voices.
Blonde marks a shift, then, toward sincere songwriting about himself. Frank Ocean’s muse seems to be almost too powerful for him when his gaze turns inward. This is Frank Ocean at his most painfully intimate, as emotionally exposed as he is physically naked on his striking album cover.
The tension created by the potency of his muse can be felt throughout. With his first unfiltered lyrics on opener “Nikes,” Ocean has to stop and start over twice, as if to bear witness to the weight of his own artistic expression. In the final 20 seconds of “Ivy,” Frank’s voice crescendos, then breaks, and he proceeds to, presumably, storm around the recording studio smashing every instrument he comes in contact with.
Such is Ocean’s palpable sincerity. He cuts into himself, exposing fresh flesh and dense bone, parsing through the ligaments and showing you what hurts.
“Good Guy” is the perfect example of Ocean’s poignant new personal twists accentuating this work. Ocean mumbles out a quick poem about a failed date with a man he met through a mutual friend. In distilled AutoTuned vocals over simple sparse chords, he sounds embarrassed to be singing about a feeling so small and intimate. His delivery sounds like he’s still uncomfortable candidly describing romantic engagements with other men.
More than that, he isn’t afraid to betray that organic response in his delivery. Ocean himself raps for the first time on his own major solo album across Blonde. His unembellished, downtempo flow is reminiscent of friend and collaborator Earl Sweatshirt.
Ocean’s songwriting here is dense, with intense graphic imagery and layers of meticulously detailed, heavy lyricism. He heaps on intricate literary and contemporary allusions and dishes metaphors that extend and collapse into each other.
The features on Blonde are staggering. “Pink + White” features an outstanding outro with Beyoncé. Her voice appears, floating out of the ether into solid form, coalescing around Ocean’s vocals, buoying him far above the world of pink and white he’d just sketched out. “Solo (reprise)” features André 3000, spitting out his bars with a rapid, rambunctious ferocity only accessible to a studied master. Here is a song set in striking comparison to their Channel Orange collaboration “Pink Matter,” in which both André and Frank approach songwriting and flow in an entirely more languid, sensual manner.
“White Ferrari” rises to the surface as an unexpected standout track. An exultant choir of Ocean’s own multitude of recorded voices filters in to accompany the song’s unfurling melody. Halfway through, Ocean cracks open his bleeding heart into a tender falsetto, cooing the pillow talk of a tragic, discordant love affair of his youth.
He’s still dealing with the same consistent, overarching themes of his work: nostalgia, unrequited love, hedonism and intimacy. These undercurrents run deep in Ocean’s catalog, striking fiercely at subjects tender to his heart even more brutally in Blonde than in his previous work.
Here’s to another four years of silence.