As one article intelligently put it, Frank Ocean seemed to become the Harper Lee of hip-hop: the reclusive artist whose innovative masterpiece and mystique left followers impatiently waiting for more.
Much like To Kill a Mocking Bird, his major debut, Channel Orange pushed the boundaries of Hip-hop in inconceivable ways. Before 2012 there weren’t openly bisexual R&B artists infusing vivid dark storytelling and social criticism in a striking baritone. And while fans slowly got over the shock of what they witnessed, Frank seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, only fuelling the excitement of what was to come next.
But as time began to pass, suspicions grew high. Doubts of whether Channel Orange was too good to be outdone began to take form and his audience was slowly giving up.
These lingering suspicions were shot down very quickly however after the abrupt release of Frank’s second major album, Blonde.
For listeners expecting a continuation of his musical narrative, the first listen might be off putting. Unlike earlier projects in which he tells stories of manipulative prostitutes, driving his car off the freeway from unrequited love and a dysfunctional crack addict in Arkansas, he’s telling other, less grandiose tales.
The issues discussed in the project are hard to pinpoint, but when they reveal themselves seem like the usual problems of the melancholic: heartbreak, loneliness, and substance abuse. But while he might not be talking about the most contentious or controversial topics, Frank’s taking a stance on the more subtle things that hang over our heads as we get through our days, so obvious they often elude our conscious awareness.
An example is “Facebook Story,” a spoken word interlude given by Frank’s producer, SebastiAn, who tells a tale of a former girlfriend who broke up with him because he wouldn’t accept her on facebook. Listeners might find this situation laughably absurd, until they realize they very well might have done the same: a reminder that we’re at a point in which virtual nonsense takes precedent over the real life we actually participate in.
There isn’t an ethical standpoint urged to live by or a blueprint to success, but instead Blonde is essentially a configuration of the headspace of an emotional introvert. While this style can be overwhelming, confusing and downright frustrating at times, it conveys an authenticity that transcends its ostensible limitations.
Like the claustrophobic space of the thoughtful mind, it’s full of contradictions and internal conflicts, issues between abstraction and imminent feelings, of social standards versus individuality. The production is wavy and sparse, Frank’s words are slow and selective, but nonetheless he’s more cryptic than ever.
This is apparent on “Nikes,” the opening track in which a chipmunk pitched voice delivers a stream of consciousness ranging from detesting the emptiness of materialism to commemorating the death of Trayvon Martin. Both the high pitch and the matter-of-factness of its words invoke a childish innocence that sets the tone for the whole project. Paradoxically, by retracting to a younger self, there’s a new found clarity in which he sees things. The more intoxicating his fame has become, the more sober minded he is, the more publicized his image, the more he withdraws himself and the more extravagant his world becomes, the more grounded his perspective is.
These jumbled, simple statements might be interpreted as the album’s downfall: that he jumps from one thought to another so quickly that they aren’t fully articulated, not giving listeners the opportunity to digest any of what he’s saying. In fact listeners might finish the album without grasping any kind of tangible theme. But maybe the confusion that takes place is really the underlying wisdom of the whole thing.
It becomes evident that none of the songs possess a concrete message, but instead evoke separate, often contradictory emotions at the same time. On “Ivy” for example, Frank reminisces on a failed relationship, on the one hand happily remembering being told he was loved but on the other the resentment he holds for it leading to nothing, only to conclude that despite everything, “deep down the feelings are good.”
A brief moment in which a mother figure compellingly tells listeners to abstain from drugs and alcohol to stay true to one’s inner self is almost immediately followed by a song conveying the desperate need to get high to escape feeling excruciatingly lonely.
Unlike artists who often set themselves apart from the masses as being superior, everything on this album seems to be different ways of expressing: “I am only human,” something we often forget when we mystify the musical genius. Frank isn’t giving us the answers, because he’s struggling to figure them out himself. In the same sense this project can’t be read as a “how to” manual because it rejects such a task as even possible for anyone. How can you solve a problem that you can’t even identify yourself?
Frank’s ambition might really be to expose the illusions of success as being a salvation from the most painful aspects of existence. Despite his accomplishments, he isn’t happier or better off than anyone else. This sentiment isn’t delivered in a tone of self-pity because he’s genuinely discussing issues that are relevant to anyone struggling to get by and willing to be deeply vulnerable in the process. On the track “Siegfried” he anxiously deliberates whether he wants to sacrifice his spontaneous blissfulness to settle down with a wife and kids. “Self Control” sees Frank deteriorate emotionally as he pleads with a loved one to keep a place for him in their heart even if they’ve moved on.
But despite the immeasurable pain that’s scattered throughout the album, it remains uplifting. While Frank seems to constantly obscure himself, his message might be much more clear than what it appears on the surface, namely that whether or not it feels pleasant, opening up oneself to experience connects us to the world, and the ever-present distractions, while numbing us temporarily, are really the only obstacles in our way.
The 4 years of silence Frank’s audience endured may very well not have been a publicity stunt, but instead a desperate attempt to salvage human experience in the face of complacency and alienation. The project’s brilliance is a testament to not incessantly reaching for what isn’t there, but embracing what we have in front of us now.