Perhaps the chorus of the song Ivy says more about the album Blonde than I ever could without misconstruing its nature. The thing about Blonde, which music heavyweight Pitchfork just named the best album of the decade, is it’s so densely packed with life, emotion, vibes, and torment that it is impossible to describe. If I could use one word to encapsulate a Blonde song, it is “ethereal.” They are minimalist, with almost no drum use; they are meandering, as they channel a steady stream of raw consciousness; they are ornately produced, with a touch of soul ever so cherished in the contemporary urban R&B world; and, above all, they are extremely personal. This is not what you play at a party—or with friends. It’s more like Pink Floyd or ambient music, something you listen to alone in a dark room at night while contemplating your existence. It requires a meditative setting. You have to be prepared and attentive. So, although those of you who know me know that it’s been my favorite album basically since it came out, I cannot recommend it to everyone. It’s very niche—unlike Frank’s previous LP, Channel Orange—perhaps even anti-pop. But if you’re up for it, I am excited for what lies in your future.
“I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me
The start of nothing, I had no chance to prepare
I couldn’t see you coming
The start of nothing, oooh, I could hate you now
It’s quite alright to hate me now
When we both know that deep down
The feeling still deep down is good.” –Ivy
The important thing to consider before you hear Blonde is the person behind it. Born Christopher Edwin Cooksey (later Christopher Breaux, taking his mother’s maiden after his abusive father exited his life at age 6), he endured a difficult childhood. Growing up in a rough LA neighborhood, then a rough New Orleans neighborhood, he was bullied for his intelligence. And in the week that he moved into his dorm at the University of New Orleans, it was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He would transfer to the University of Louisiana, studying English, but his home was gone after Katrina. Later dropping out to pursue music, he slid into homelessness and cocaine addiction. He slept on friends’ mattresses and wrote through the night, sleeping in the day, as noted in the song Nights.
The first 4 minutes are already great, but wait ’til you hear the rest.
It wasn’t until he moved to L.A. that he became Frank Ocean—the up and coming ghostwriter who wrote songs for Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, John Legend, Alicia Keys, James Blake, etc. Forging an unlikely alliance with the talented, controversial young rap group Odd Future, he used his new role to bolster his career. Odd Future certainly had promise in the likes of Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator, but it was clear that Frank stood out the most. He dropped his first album, “nostalgia, ULTRA” to heavy critical acclaim. But his true moment of stardom came a year later in 2012, with the release of his debut studio LP “Channel Orange.” Ocean ended up with six Grammy nominations, winning two, and universal acclaim. Channel Orange even ended up #10 on the aforementioned Pitchfork best albums of the decade list, and many consider it his best. It’s hard not to when you hear Pyramids (linked above—a sprawling 10-minute song about of the evolution and exploitation of the African woman, beginning with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and ending with a prostitute named Cleopatra at the famous Vegas casino and club, The Pyramid). It was clear by then that Frank is a once-in-a-generation talent, and we waited 4 years for his next LP. A recluse who lives in hotels, keeping his music in analog discs in his backpack as he travels the world, he took his time—and then came Blonde.
Much like how director Terrence Malick refuses to explain The Tree of Life, Ocean leaves a lot of doors open on Blonde. Even the cover itself features a different spelling of the word, opting for “blond,” the masculine twin of “blonde” (plus his hair looks more green). But the gold lies in his thoughts about life, love, heartbreak, existence, and purpose. He is a modern philosopher in many ways—who is not afraid to dwell in the maximalist culture of modernity, who is not one to cower from the discourse of socioeconomics, who is authentic in every feeling he ponders. He is even funny. But perhaps of equal importance, this gifted, avant-garde, smoothie-R&B craftsman is absolutely incredible at producing music.
The magic begins 90 seconds in (warning: some explicit lyrics).
From the songs Nights (which feels like a succession to Pyramids) to Seigfried to Nikes to Pink + White to Skyline To, he drapes the lyrics with sounds that are so beautiful and uniquely crafted for the thematic elements of the given moment. With Ivy, Solo, and Self Control, he goes straight for the heart with a more organic approach. Songs like Solo and White Ferrari remind us how beautiful Ocean’s voice itself is, each diving deep into his solitary life. With Solo comes Solo (Reprise), featuring one of André 3000’s most amazing verses—laying out the conflicting feelings of being an R&B artist or rapper in 2016, only to pour into the maelstrom of the next song, Pretty Sweet. Soon after comes what I find one of the more underrated ones, Close to You—a short Stevie Wonder cover which somehow drifts in and out of existence under the harrowing echoes of an auto-tuned voice. It’s weird to experience this masterpiece of an album in any way other than start to end, but I will note that Nights (for its absolutely sensational production and smooth bars) and Ivy (for its heart-shattering emotion and depth) are, in my opinion, the best songs while Seigfried and White Ferrari are close.
“If you think about it
It will be over in no time
And that’s life
I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension
You say we’re small and not worth the mention
Clearly this isn’t all that there is
Can’t take what’s been given
But we’re so okay here, we’re doing fine
Primal and naked
You dream of walls that hold us in prison
It’s just a skull, at least that’s what they call it
And we’re free to roam.” –White Ferrari
All in all, Blonde always feels as personal, multi-faceted, and clouded as the above lyrics from White Ferrari. This sense of introspective haziness is something that drifts between songs, lingering, even when you’re no longer listening. It creeps into your mind and catches you when you’re at your most vulnerable. It helped me through many rough times; I know I speak for many in that regard. Because in 30 years, people will talk about Ocean the way they do about David Bowie and Bob Dylan. But Blonde isn’t an experience one can force, something to wish into existence by sheer will; it is more transcendental, lurking around the infinite planes of spacetime, and will strike you when you least expect it.