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 must be attentive. But if you can do it, I’m excited for your immediate future.
The important thing to consider before you hear Blonde is the person behind it. Growing up as Christopher Breaux (taking his mother’s maiden name after his abusive father exited his life), Frank endured a rough childhood. Growing up in a New Orleans ghetto, he was bullied for his intelligence. And in the week that he moved into his dorm at the University of New Orleans, it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina—along with his home. He transferred to the University of Louisiana, studying English. Later dropping out for music, he slid into homelessness and addiction. He slept on friends’ mattresses and wrote all night, while sleeping in the day, as noted in Nights (more to come on this song when we get to Blonde).
Skip the first 100 seconds of Nights and then prepare for absolute musical heaven. It is certainly one of my favorite songs of all time.
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. It’s hard not to respect it when you hear Pyramids (a sprawling 10-minute masterpiece of a song about of the evolution and exploitation of the African woman, starting with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and ending with a prostitute named Cleopatra at the famous Vegas night club, The Pyramid). So, Frank was clearly a once-in-a-generation talent, and we waited 4 years for his next LP. A recluse who is constantly traveling, keeping his music only on discs in his backpack, 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 (which, long story short, is sometimes stylized as “blond”). He meanders through ideas and thoughts about life, love, heartbreak, existence, and purpose. He is a modern philosopher in some ways. But—perhaps of equal importance—this gifted, avant-garde, smoothie-R&B craftsman is incredible at production. From Nights to Seigfried to Nikes to Pink + White to Skyline To, he drapes the lyrics with sounds that are so beautiful and crafted for the thematic elements of each given moment. He also knows when to minimize the components of the sound to heighten emotional experiences like Ivy.
“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
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 that is the next song: Pretty Sweet. Soon after comes Close to You—a marvelous little Stevie Wonder cover which drifts in and out of existence under the harrowing echoes of an auto-tuned voice. And though Nights, Ivy, Siegfried, and White Ferrari are my favorite songs, Pretty Sweet and Close to You are hidden gems.
“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. 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 space, and will strike you when you least expect it. It is the ultimate dagger to the heart.
Ivy is a stripped-down, heart-wrenching love story.