“Mind over matter is magic” confides Frank Ocean “I do magic.” It’s the sort of clever, hyperbolized turn of phrase employed by storytellers to heighten the tension within their tales. But I’m beginning to actually believe it. Nothing less than sleight of hand could have allowed the 28 year-old RB singer-songwriter to fool his record company by releasing a visual album (the surprise Endless) to fulfill his standing contract with Def Jam, then dropping the real prize (the long-awaited Blonde) one day later on his own record label Boys Don’t Cry, thereby quintupling his take home pay (lawyers are still sorting out the viability of that bait and switch).
There’s also the mysterious alchemy of artistic creation — a puzzle Endless seeks to unlock. The 45-minute video shows Ocean constructing an unnamed project out of large pieces of wood while songs that presumably didn’t make the cut for Blonde play in the background — a sort of metaphorical Lumber Liquidators for Ocean’s creative impulses. It’s the first sign of life from Ocean since 2012’s masterwork Channel Orange, so yeah, we’re more than content to watch the R&B singer fuck around in a wood shop. At the end of the video, Ocean assembles the pieces together in the center of the room and we slowly recognize what he’s building — a spiral staircase that leads to nowhere. As the music culminates, Ocean slowly ascends the steps. Just before he reaches the top, the sound and camera cut away. The video starts over. Ocean’s at the power saw again, measuring and cutting from scratch; the journey begins anew. It’s a peculiar yet satisfying glimpse into Ocean’s creative process, equal parts painstaking, meditative, and mystical.
But the greatest magic trick Ocean performs is releasing a highly-anticipated album that completely subverts audience expectations yet still manages to succeed on multiple levels. Blonde is a bold, uncanny deconstruction of the pleasures that made Ocean a budding star; those rich slabs of kaliedescopic, Stevie Wonder-esque R&B are exchanged for unadorned guitars and chasms of empty space, jubilant pop hooks have been recast to support somber reflection, and Ocean’s warm, effortless croon now sounds like a ghost in the machine. But Ocean’s narrative gifts remain undiminished on Blonde, an album whose difficult nature reinforces its authenticity and provides the most revelatory look into its author’s psyche to date. Def Jam may never forgive Frank Ocean, but everyone else will.
Blonde deftly explores the spaces between intimacy and loneliness, the real and the virtual, transparency and the sort of conversations that only happen in your head. Unlike Channel Orange, this album isn’t made for blaring out car windows or spinning at summer barbecues and late night house parties. It’s a soundtrack for that long stare in the mirror at 3 AM when the guests have all stumbled home and the place is in shambles, the phone screen’s glow has transformed from alluring promise to a dull reminder of emotional absence, and self-doubt creeps in the shadows. Are those people really my friends? Am I really who I say I am? Is there anything more than this?
That sense of naked doubt is amplified by Blonde’s sparse instrumentation. There’s an unapologetic absence of groove and rhythm in these songs; Ocean would rather use an isolated guitar melody or synth motif as counterpoint for his gorgeously expressive voice. Accompanied by a stripped down church organ, the wordless vocal runs in “Solo” soar like urban hymns. Vocal pièce de résistance “Self Control” expresses yearning so majestically, it almost hurts; “Keep a place for me” Ocean implores of an old lover, first in a digitized, child-like cry, then again through a tidal wave of of deep altos that strike a chord of devastating warmth. It’s feels humbling yet comforting at the same time, like you’re resting in the palm of God’s hand.
Similar to the way two or three Frank doppelgangers build the staircase on Endless, most vocal tracks on Blonde feature a latticework chorus of Franks — tenors intersecting with feathery falsettos (“Nights”), sublime mixes of voices pitched up, chopped and screwed, and auto-tuned (“Nikes”), and tingle-inducing, double-tracked harmonies (“Self Control”). It’s a nuanced, masterful performance at the microphone and in the studio — an a cappella of the multiple personalities of one man and his machines.
Ocean’s vivid lyrics have never been more impressionistic or intimate, often to the brink of surrealism. He pairs images of pink and white sunsets with doing cannonballs off rooftops after Hurricane Katrina, reminisces about Michael Jackson climbing trees, looks forward to to doing shrooms and having a good cry. On the lovely, ruminating “White Ferrari,” Ocean slips cars and cocaine metaphors into a fever dream pieced together by little more than a rumbling synth and plucked acoustic guitar, philosophizing “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension/ You say we’re smaller and not worth the mention” before lamenting “Clearly, this isn’t all that there is.” The more you analyze the passages, the more inscrutable they become. If Ocean conceives of himself first and foremost as a writer, then Blonde is pure street poetry — abstract, subconscious, and shrouded in truths — where the sound of the wordplay is almost as important as the meaning.
There’s something transformative happening below the surface on Blonde. It’s initially an unassuming record, but given time, it evokes a visceral emotional response, as if the album’s very impermeability offers validation to those who possess emotions they can neither fully articulate nor express. Blonde is a profoundly private statement whose meaning few but Ocean may ever fully know, yet the record’s beauty, simplicity and sincerity act as a conduit for listener sentiments. It’s a safe place to share secrets, if only with yourself. Blonde cements Frank Ocean as enigmatic empath, the man who brings all the feels.
Like other artistic visionaries who preceded him (at this point, yes, Prince has entered the conversation), Frank Ocean is a maze of contradictions — the heir apparent to Otis, Isley, and Marvin with a taste for Radiohead and The Jesus & Mary Chain, a bi-sexual, stereotype-defying artisan who co-founded a hip-hop collective responsible for some of the most misogynistic and homophobic lyrics of the last decade, a lucid storyteller with a knack for rendering idiosyncratic details with universal eloquence. Blonde is manifestation of those contradictions. Pharrell famously called Ocean the “black James Taylor” for his uncanny ability to weave chords and indelible lyrics into songs that felt like instant classics. It feels like an odd comparison until you consider an anecdote Taylor once shared on stage about his own songwriting: “When a new one appears, sometimes I feel like I’m simply the first person who’s hearing it.” Blonde has this sense of singularity. It wasn’t so much created as it exists.
On spacey album closer “Futura Free,” Ocean’s meta stream of consciousness goes supernova as he freestyles to his mom about his own meager existence — being poor, sleeping on sofas, writing songs, and finally making it big. “I’m just a guy, not a God/ Sometimes I feel like a God.” It’s the sound of a preternaturally gifted artist growing, stretching his legs and exhibiting utter confidence in this abilities. “You say I’m changing on you” Ocean raps defiantly, aware that these strange songs are taking him and us down a path neither could have expected. But Ocean’s joy and awe are so palpable that this embrace of his gifts, like the rest of Blonde, never feels self-indulgent. “You can change this track now/ Coulda changed this bitch a long time ago” he laughs, knowing you wouldn’t dare consider it.