There was a time when being classified as a reclusive artist required a true disappearance. Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger, and Jeff Mangum not only stopped producing work, but hid themselves for the better part of their careers and lives. The ease and speed with which we communicate now has made reclusiveness both more alluring and more accessible for artists. The downside is reclusiveness is less alluring for the public. Delete your Twitter, and you’re now a recluse. Let four years pass since your last release, and frustration metastasizes among fans. Frank Ocean has done both, in addition to moving to London, earning him Harper Lee comparisons to accompany the hype surrounding his rumored follow-up to 2012’s Channel Orange. But Ocean is keenly smart and self-aware, he know’s he can’t disappear. A Tumblr post from April of 2015 about the possibility of breaking free from Earth’s gravity is captioned with, “i know, i know..quit asking dumb ass questions to the internet and drop your album. haha.” And so on August 20, 2016, after a nearly two-month cycle of heightened speculation, hype, teasing, and disappointment, Ocean wryly posted again on his Tumblr, “FUCK, SORRY.. I TOOK A NAP, BUT IT’S PLAYING ON APPLE RADIO RN.” Frank Ocean’s second studio album, Blond, was finally available, exclusive to iTunes as a package deal: all 17 tracks together for $9.99.
In an interview with Pitchfork, the artist Tom Sachs, who collaborated with Frank Ocean on the visual album and Blond precursor Endless, described Blond as “the kind of record that you need to listen to with headphones,” a nod to its complexity and intricate arrangement. Whereas Channel Orange seemed best suited for long summer drives or poolside afterparties, Blond requires a focused dissection, if only to catch the appearances of Ocean’s long list of collaborators. Dozens including Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, Alex G, The Beatles, David Bowie, and more are credited to some extent, but their contributions are hidden, or at least appear sparingly: a harmony here, a few ad libs there, a guitar riff somewhere else. Beyonce provides some backup vocals on “Pink + White,” the high pitched synth midway through “Skyline To,” sounds distinctly like 2010 Odd Future, and Yung Lean might or might not be singing a chorus on “Self Control.” The sparse guest features give Blond a sense of loneliness and intimacy. However, other appearances are much more apparent. French DJ/producer SebastiAn tells the story of a relationship gone awry with the advent of Facebook on “Facebook Story,” and Ocean’s mother provides stern but loving advice urging her son to stay sober on “Be Yourself,” ending her message endearingly familiar with the eternal, “this is mom, call me.”
Katonya Breaux Riley’s appearance, like all elements of Blond’s arrangement purposefully adds to a theme. In the Boys Don’t Cry magazine released with the album, Ocean admits in his interview with Lil B, “sometimes I prefer my childhood over all this serious adulthood shit.” The glorification of the teenage years and the intensity of our first relationships continue from Channel Orange to Blond, but on the latter, fond reminiscing is outweighed by confusion and the struggles of growing older. Andre 3000 reflects on his music career in “Solo (Reprise),” wondering if all the effort he put into his art as a young person was worth it when his successors accomplished the same using a team of writers. “I’m so naive / I was under the impression / That everyone wrote they own verses,” he raps. While Channel Orange often celebrated the innocence of adolescence and the love that comes with it, Blond, like Andre’s verse, presents an artist who has aged and refuses to be that naive. There are references to Black teenagers being killed by police, “Solo” alludes to the psychic and financial costs of unwanted pregnancy, and multiple tracks, SebastiAn’s story included, deal in the breakdown of relationships.
The contrast between the simplicity of childhood and the complexity of adulthood is just one many dualities explored on Blond. Ocean touches on the desire to settle down out of the limelight versus the pursuit of celebrity, the false duality of gender and sexuality, sobriety versus insobriety, heaven and hell, and other conflicts. The album is also split exactly down the middle at a beat switch in “Nights” into two 30-minute segments. Ocean has always been a smart and self-aware artist, willing to embrace contradictions, irony, and complexity while simultaneously painting clear pictures of raw emotion and formative moments in relationships. On Blond he seems more willing to embrace the experimental. Untethered by drums for a majority of the album his voice varies from autotuned harmonies to spoken word to his trademark falsetto. Maturity is embracing chaotic and sometimes abrasive sounds like the beginning of “Pretty Sweet” and the end of “Ivy,” knowing he can rein them in.
All this is not to say Blond is inaccessible and overly complex. On the surface, tracks like “Ivy,” “Nights” and “Pink + White” are outright catchy. Only time will tell if a song from Blond can reach the echelons of Ocean’s more straightforward and popular hits from previous albums. Kanye’s urging notwithstanding, it seems hard to imagine radio stations taking to a song like “Nikes” the way they took to “Thinkin’ Bout You.” But if anyone is aware the music industry has changed since Channel Orange, it’s Frank Ocean himself, whose release of two albums in two days is increasingly looking like an utter finesse of Universal Music Group.
If one thing is clear, Blond and its visual and magazine accompagnements are a body of work that will transform the Frank Ocean narrative from that of a really good singer to that of a Visionary Artist in the same way My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy transformed the Kanye narrative. In a way it already has. Today it seems like Ocean’s beef with Chris Brown took place in an alternate universe. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Blond is not only a display of artistic skill but a display of artistic confidence; a confidence that allows Ocean to declare, “I ain’t on your schedule / I ain’t on no schedule” in “Futura Free” and mean it not as a sign of reclusiveness but as a sign of artistic maturity.