Frank Ocean’s Long-awaited Return to the Spotlight
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Before Frank Ocean disappeared off the face of the planet four years ago following the release of his monumental album, Channel Orange, the 28-year-old singer/songwriter had already made a name for himself. Ocean gained popularity through challenging dated binaries, contradicting prevailing expectations about sexuality, and avoiding the characterization of himself by any one person or group. It seems that this is in fact what the young artist does best – Frank Ocean gets noticed, but without asking for the spotlight.
And now, after four achingly long years of an Oceanless world, Frank has finally dropped not just one, but two new albums.
In August, Ocean’s website debuted his visual album, Endless – a piece of film that captures the artist in a workshop, silently and meticulously building something from several wood pieces, while songs that presumably didn’t make the cut for his better known album, Blonde, play in the background. At the end of the film, Ocean begins assembling pieces, and the viewer begins to realize that he has built a staircase, leading to nowhere. The video is 45 minutes in total, and although most people would find a video such as this painfully boring, this is just the type of piece that would be expected from Ocean. It provides a sort of sneak peak into the peculiar, nautical creative process of the young artist.
Above all this, though, is the release of the highly-anticipated album Blonde, which dropped just one day after Endless was released. This isn’t just coincidence either – after all, when has Frank Ocean not had a strategy? The young artist released Endless, an intriguing but relatively minor work, in order to fulfill his standing contract with his record label, Def Jam. It was this move that then allowed Ocean to drop the main delicious entree, Blonde, as a self-released album.
And Blonde? It’s magic. Gritty yet smooth, soft yet raw, simple enough to keep the brain in the present, yet still complex enough to stand out. Although at first listen the album might seem surface level, as you listen more, the songs begin to grow on you – all at once, and hard. It’s an album that contains the perfect mix of Ocean’s warm, eerie voice laid over a stripped down guitar, moody organs, synths, voice distortions, and even the occasional inserted audio recording from the artist’s past. Above all things, it seems Ocean is a storyteller. This fact comes across clearly within Blonde’s lyricism, where every song transports you to another place, another day, night, or moment in the life of Frank Ocean.
The songs on Blonde are not ones you’d ever hear blasting through a car window as it passes on the street, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The album itself feels very much like a release you’d want to listen to in solitude, on a long bus ride home or in the quiet of a dark room. The songs on Blonde tell a story, and as the album progresses, you begin to feel as if you’re going about life through the eyes of Ocean, not the eyes of yourself.
Blonde is very much about testing the boundaries and overlap between complete solitude and total dependency. In songs like “Nights” or “Solo,” the theme of independence and individuality is not only referenced, but celebrated. Ocean sings “New beginnings / New beginnings wake up / The sun’s going down / Time to start your day” in “Nights,” a message to listeners that each day is a chance to start fresh. But it’s in songs like “Ivy,” “Self Control,” and “Godspeed” that Ocean portrays the overwhelming euphoria of being with another person, as well as the toll it can sometimes take. In “Godspeed,” an eerily dreamy track backed by stripped down organs and not much else, Ocean sings, “I let go of my claim on you, it’s a free world / You look down on where you came from sometimes / But you’ll have this place to call home, always.” Ocean’s final track on the album, “Futura Free,” is in a category all on its own. The song dips into previous experiences from Ocean’s past, providing a look into how far the artist has come, both on his own, and with the help from other major influences in his life. It’s this final track that encompasses the broader aspects of his life, thus bringing together the album as a whole.
So what’s next for Mr. Ocean, you ask? It’s a good question, and we may just have to wait another four years to find out what other tricks the artist has up his sleeve. Until then, I recommend you set aside an hour out of your day, sit down, and enjoy the unexpected dreaminess that is Blonde.