The ‘Have you heard’ series is a look into significant albums across multiple genres. We will explore what made these albums tick and why they’re worth listening to today.
After seemingly endless inaccurate release dates, Frank Ocean released his sophomore album on 20 August 2016. Blonde was the follow up to 2012’s Channel Orange and has been incredibly successful.
The album has been lauded by critics and adored by fans. Its revered status seems to have little to do with the circumstances around its release, which is no small feat given the hype built around the album. Ocean’s sudden withdrawal from the public eye after the success of Channel Orange followed by years of silence had primed starving fans for a release of any kind.
To have sidelined the circumstances of the album’s release and then decided that it was worthy of praise is perhaps the first indication that Blonde is something special. (The second is probably the fact that this is one of the few albums to spawn an 11-episode-long podcast series about its themes and production years after its release.)
Blonde is a marked deviation from the Soul-influenced style of Channel Orange. Ocean has, in great detail, listed his influences and inspirations for Blonde but the most frequent comparison he receives for Blonde is collaborator Brian Eno, a minimalist by anyone’s standards. However, to say that Blonde sounds like an Eno record is a reduction.
Blonde is the work of someone who spent a good deal of time thinking about how they wanted their record to sound. The array of producers and features Ocean enlisted on this project show exactly that.
Ocean starts his album with a meditative piece that is both eulogy and a collection of sparse thoughts. “Nikes” is a lush, high-pitched track with references to his life growing up, ideas about materialism, and perhaps the only political references on the album. Ocean talks about A$AP Yams, Pimp C, and Trayvon Martin who all suffered untimely deaths for different reasons. The song stands as a testament to Ocean’s ability to create cohesion in a song from thoughts that may not always be well put together.
Working up the tracklist from “Nikes” one of the things that becomes increasingly evident is that Ocean’s attention to detail goes well beyond just the production and features. His masterful use of his voice lends both perspective and musical uniqueness to his work.
“Solo” is an organ-backed drug-fuelled anthem to being by oneself on which Ocean almost raps the verses before a heady, soaring, and layered outro in which his vocal talents are on display. This type of variation is standard for him on Blonde. He does not shy away from showing his chops when he deems necessary.
The second half of the album, marked by the beat switch around 3 minutes into “Nights” marks a change in production style that lasts the rest of the album and culminates in the final song on the album “Futura Free”.
“Futura Free” is a nine-minute-long smorgasbord that shows the best parts on the album all in one place. Ocean runs through a gamut of different voices and production styles before silence splits the song. The latter part of the song is voice recordings of Ocean’s friends played over a version of Buddy Ross’ (Ocean’s keyboard player) “Running Around” that serves as a signifier in the album for the more nostalgic or skit-like parts (it appears on “Be Yourself” and “Facebook Story” as well).
Frank Ocean is many things. A masterful, attentive producer, a truly gifted musician, a talented photographer, a reluctant celebrity, a skilled storyteller, and an artist in many ways. Blonde is an amalgam of all of those things and more. It is an important, deeply personal album that shows that a strong creative vision and attentive collaboration can yield albums that will be remembered for decades to come.