“IS THERE ANY CONTEMPORARY MALE R&B SINGER-SONGWRITER AS EVOCATIVE AND DARING AS FRANK OCEAN?
A few years and a Ryan Lochte-like “over-exaggeration” about a 2015 release later, Frank Ocean released the proper follow-up to 2012’s channel ORANGE over the weekend with Blonde. (Endless, the visual album he released earlier, is good but not the true sophomore effort, if any of that cataloging even matters anymore.) The most immediate question about the new album, which was once known as Boys Don’t Cry, is whether or not it was worth wait. The answer is yes, and and also seems to be the kind of album that calls for extra effort (and listens) from the listener in order to discover all its strengths.
If you’re a fan of Frank Ocean, the 17-track Blonde more than satisfies a wait that wasn’t as long as it may have felt. That feeling, though, proposes another question about the artist: Is there any contemporary male R&B singer-songwriter as evocative and daring as Frank Ocean? Apple Music has categorized Blonde as pop for its varied influences and references, but its core is largely rooted in the traditions of rhythm and blues and soul—Ocean’s vocal style, the layering of his vocal tracks, and certain drum patterns can all be traced back to R&B. Some have christened this “avant-garde soul,” but taking a genre to new places doesn’t mean you’ve separated your work from a rich tradition.
You might have some other contemporary Black male singers in mind for that title, but more often than not so many of those artists merely wear a superficial aesthetics of emotion. Sure, the songs sound sad sonically; the production is sparse, making the vocals, detached, feel like you’re listening to someone pouring his soul out. But, lyrically, so much of the material is drowning in lust (which is useful, but different), or frankly, of that subgenre some refer to as fuckboy ‘n B: whiny, defensive, and stubbornly unwilling to offer any indication of emotional intelligence.
When you compare those artists to Ocean, you realize how distinct his gift for vulnerability and introspection (not to mention surprising, writerly language) really is. His words come across as genuine, and as others have recently highlighted, force the listener to wrestle with their own emotions about subjects like mortality, failure, unrequited love, and specifically, the pain and necessary reflection that comes with it. The album may no longer be called Boys Don’t Cry, but Ocean paints himself as separate from other men who generally avoid anything that isn’t driven by hyper-masculine ego, bypassing sincerity in an effort to remain “cool.”
You hear this on “Seigfried,” where Ocean laments that he’s “not brave” while singing lines like, “I couldn’t gauge your fears/I can’t relate to my peers/I’d rather live outside/I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here.”
Or when he mulls over a failed relationship on “Ivy,” singing, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said love me.”
Or on every second of “Solo.”
And when he very casually notes “here’s to the gay bar you took me to” on “Good Guy.” Until there is a day when Ocean’s assumed bisexuality and his singing about unrequited love for a man does not make him, a Black man, an anomaly in mainstream music, even the most casual reference to otherness will be a big deal to those of us who see no parts of ourselves in this culture.
As a southerner, I feel a sense of familiarity with Blonde that’s equally appreciated. That is to say, Ocean referencing the restaurant Shoney’s, parts of New Orleans, and in the video for “Nikes,” Trina, who holds a special place in the hearts of many a colored member of the LGBTQ community. Even the voice of his mom on the voicemail making clear “this is mom” resonates, ‘cause it’s such a mom thing to do!
Speaking of familiar, that’s Beyoncé’s voice drifting etherally on “Pink + White,” which reminds me of every early N.E.R.D. song that I’ve ever loved. Kim Burrell’s always beautiful voice makes me wave a church fan in my mind on “Godspeed,” a track that follows Kanye West and Chance the Rapper in invoking gospel in secular work.
Both those lowkey guest appearances register better than Kendrick Lamar’s on “Skyline.” The song is enjoyable, but Kendrick’s additions are so faint, it only makes you wonder what a proper collaboration between the two would sound like.
André 3000 certainly made the most of his time on “Solo (Reprise),” another reminder of how skillful he is and—while we’re posing more and more questions—makes you wonder if we could ever pressure him to give us another solo album. 3000 raps: “I’m so naive I was under the impression that everyone wrote they own verses/It’s comin’ back different and yea that shit hurts me/I’m hummin’ and whistlin’ to those not deserving/I’m stumbled and lift every word, was I working just way too hard?”
That’s the smartest, slickest, most succinct jab at Drake that Meek Mill never threw.
This album is a slow burn. It is, like Nostalgia, Ultra, and channel ORANGE, meditative and requires more than a couple of hours to catalog all its great moments. It feels more like the former, however, which is to say, better and more cohesive.
I do like that the album cover art reads blond, male, but its proper title is Blonde, female. There’s subtext there, though Ocean himself is the only one who could explain it in full. I’m also curious about the use of blonde and blond, given that Ocean, a Black man from New Orleans, likely wouldn’t have come from or grown up with many natural blondes, if any.
What we do know, thanks to a note posted to his Tumblr: “I had the time of my life making all of this. Thank you all. Especially those of you who never let me forget I had to finish. Which is basically every one of ya’ll. Haha. Love you.”
With both Endless and Blonde, we have plenty of new Frank Ocean to sustain us—and just as many questions about his art and life as we did before. The wait felt torturous, but as one of those people who never let him forget he had to finish, the feeling now is nothing short of gratifying.