A Live-Blog of Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’, A Record of Individuality and Sadness, Sandwiched Between “R” and “B”
OK, here is what I know about Frank Ocean: he was a part of OFWGKTA (which I used to write about a lot because I listened to them a lot); he sort-of “came out” in a tumblr post either right before his previous, debut album, Channel Orange, was released or it was right before the Grammys, of which he was nominated for a few; once he “came out” as having loved someone of the same gender (I do not think the words explicitly I’m Gay were used) he became the second “openly” gay member of Odd Future, the first being Syd Tha Kid (who is also a part of the recording group, The Internet); I know that he is my age, that he is from California, that he likes fast cars, and that my favorite music of his are his verses on the Odd Future track “Oldie” and a feature he did on Earl Sweatshirt’s record Doris. I also know that I am not really fond of his music. The R&B vibrato thing that he does, and many other artists do, aren’t my jam. I tried to give Channel Orange a number of chances and only “Super Rich Kids” stuck (the entire song is a hook and features Earl Sweatshirt, so there you go). I listened to nostalgia, ULTRA and at first listen it was groovy, then not so much. What I know about Frank Ocean is that he is an important artist, an important black artist, he is an important artist in the Queer Community, that he is his own person, and he inspires other people to Do Whatever They Want To Do Too. I like that about him. I know I am not really a fan of his music on a general I Have Ears And Can Hear level, so I’m not really sure how this Live-Blog is going to go. But it’s a record of value (to some) and a new record (which makes me look cool) and when I’m not writing I think to much and I’m reaching that point as a writer that I need to write to stay alive. So here we are.
There are 17 tracks. Let’s do this.
1. Nikes: This track is 6:10 long (I am Live-Blogging the original release, or whatever, of this record. No special edition, or whatever.) He is using a voice modulator, if that is indeed his voice, which I assume it is. This one makes the timbre higher and speeds up the vocals, period. The rest of the sounds here are slow and goopy, like a hot day. I remember when I first heard Channel Orange I knew it was music to think to, the kind people soundtrack their daydreams to. He shouts out Trevyon Martin “that n*gga look just like me” and my heart breaks a little. So much of music has become about the violence against Black Americans–it is representing it, it is cataloging it (unfortunately), and it is giving the survivors and their mothers (see: Beyonce’s Lemonade) a voice. Three minutes in and his voice is changing. I always liked that about Odd Future, their voice modulation. It gives the same person a lot of different personalities. It also gives the listener an ability to differentiate between the writer’s different persona’s they want to put in the sonic space their creating. It’s a simple idea and one that always goes well. I appreciate it as a listener and as a former student of audio engineering. Frank is my age but still seems to be young at heart: “I make love to you/but I’m not in love with you.” There is so much ambient space on this opening track (and I assume on this whole record) that it will give me more time to think, to think about life, and about what Frank Ocean means to people. I know this record has been in the wings, waiting, on some level, to be delivered to fans and critics alike, waiting on bated breath since they heard Channel Orange for the first time. People hailed that record like the second coming and I never understood that.
2. Ivy: A completely different sound here. Perhaps that is why Frank is hailed as a second coming. He has an ability to save face, to make a new one, to spread his wings to become a new animal every few minutes. I will say, even though the whole “R&B Thing” doesn’t do it for me, I give it to Frank to give it a new feel. Hmm, just after I declare him a kid, he tells me he’s not: “I ain’t a kid no more/we’ll never be those kids again.” The free space this loose music provides for him to wax poetic lyrically is massive. It is a bubble he is continuously filling up with ideas and with mantras that other people will relate to. “We will never be those kids anymore.” The way he sings “I broke your heart last week/you probably feel better by the weekend/I thought I was dreaming when you said you loved me” breaks my heart, in a way that it touches millions of listeners. Music has that ability to push itself onto the listener. It’s the reason why people keep listening to it, keep writing about it, and keep seeking it out: it allows people to see themselves in a place that doesn’t exist, through something they cannot touch. …ah the end of this song is a blatant push away of sound effects.
3. Pink + White: Another feel, which I already regret I’ll be writing too often. Is this record about heart break or about loss or about navigating a new love? A quick trip over to Frank’s bio page tells me that he’s really from New Orleans, but was born in LA. What’s the different between a birth place and an origin? I always figured they were the same thing. His musical style over and over again is described as “idiosyncratic” which is no doubt, an excellent word that can mean so much and tells me about his music without ever having to listen to it. The Internet tells me he was born in LA and raised in New Orleans. I guess that answers that.
4. Be Yourself: “Don’t try to be someone else/don’t try to be like someone else/don’t try to act like someone else/be yourself/rely and trust upon yourself/just be yourself…do not smoke marijuana. Do not drink alcohol. Do not get in a car with someone who is inebriated. This is ma. Call me.” At first I’m thinking who is this woman? What is this recording? And now I’m thinking about Kendrick and good kid, m.A.A.d city and the heavy use of his mother’s voice messages used in that recording. Still though, the message here sticks to Frank’s overall M.O.: be yoself.
5. Solo: The most straightforward track of his. Here it’s just Frank and what sounds like a few keys of a synthesizer and a whistle sound effect of some kind. He echoes himself in the background, with a higher whisper, which might just be a metaphor for the recording artist himself: the recording artist is his own keeper, says what he wants, and in this day and age, has the freedom to do so. Or I guess Frank Ocean has the fame and ability enough to just be himself. But since records are released so differently now compared to even a few years ago, it gives recording artists the ability to just be free. To be “Solo” and to be Themselves. Lately I’ve been reevaluating my relationship with Feminism and wondering why I am a fan and listener to hip-hop, then I start to think that most music, and mostly everything is misogynistic. Then I realize, when Frank utters the word Pussy that he isn’t anti-women at all, that we haven’t been doing what hip-hop records usually do (on some level): keep women down and treat them as objects. “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/inhale inhale there’s heaven/there’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky/inhale inhale there’s heaven.” I’m not really sure what that means on a Normal level, but on a poetic, lonely person level, I might need some more time to figure that out.
6. Skyline To: “Keep high/stay alive” he tells me. “Making sweet love/taking time” so much time. So much about Frank Ocean’s music is to take time. It gives me too much time to think, which this time around might not be a good thing. Frank Ocean’s music is nothing but room to think and I turn to the Writer(s), Producer(s) section of Blonde‘s Wikipedia page and it turns out Kendrick Duckworth shows up. I glance too far into the future and see Lennon and McCartney’s name, separately. “In comes the morning” he groans, and there’s a church-like chorus (forgive me I am religiously uneducated) and it turns me off. Maybe that’s why?
7. Self Control: What sounds like a child’s voice, with no music behind it, just rapping, until a familiar guitar chord comes in. It reminds me of something? “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.” Ah, everyone’s favorite musical talk, the wet dream “Everybody had a wet dream” Lennon sang more than sixty years ago. Is it music’s preoccupation with sex or is it people’s preoccupation with sex? The guitar tracking on this song is so simple and so easy to fall into. Blonde is a record I think I am falling into, one that makes me want to stare out of the window, instead of keeping my fingers moving here. But then he groans out his vowels more and I lose interest. For those of you who argue, “No! This is great! You have to give it a chance!” Can’t I just tell you that this isn’t the kind of music I like? “Keep a place for me” another male voice says. And another voice is muffled beyond distinction. Ocean has this ability to use sound like a producer and a recording artist. I am drawn into it as a human being and as a fan of music, like I assume most fans of Frank Ocean are: how can you turn your head when someone so unique is making sounds like this? You have to at least give it a chance. He’s singing about love, sex, summertime, the mystique of being a human being, and the fact that no one really knows what to do with themselves. I wonder what his music will sound like as he grows older. Will he become like Bob Dylan and just have many faces?
8. Good Guy: Cool muffled voices again, but in an entirely new way. With electric piano, ah, my heart strings. Use a piano and you will find me running towards you. You can kind of make out what the voice (Frank?) is singing to us, but I think the point is to be unsure. “I don’t care about bitches like that,” a voice says, “I’ll just…” and then it trails off.
9. Nights: What’s happening here is, all the songs are starting to sound the same to me. I think that is why my chances as a Frank Ocean Fan and as a fan of Channel Orange never made it through to the other side. People will always tell me otherwise, listeners and fans, that his music doesn’t all sound the same. But I beg to differ. He is using really cool production, yes, his voice is changing, yes, his producing skills are one-of-a-kind, but still everything starts to sound the same: the slow-mo-production that ultimately morphs into something else. “This sounds like a quaalude,” he tells me. No shit, Frank. This record makes me want to do drugs and stare out the car window, someone else driving of course, so I can daydream into the clouds. Frank’s music is perfect for that kind of vibe. My head turns and I find myself thinking about the books on my shelves instead of the music. Frank’s music has that ability on me, to lose focus on what I’m supposed to be glued to. The more his vibrato goes, the further away my mind travels. 3:38 into this song, it sounds like another song. I check my player to check to see if I haven’t missed a song changeover, and here it’s just another movement. Although a lazy one that could’ve been another song? Or is that what we’re supposed to do here. Frank says, take my hand, follow me, you’ll be safe. I’m not sure I’d take his hand personally since sonically I lose interest. His voice mumbles together with itself as he raps. Maybe it’s because my relationship with drugs have changed and I’ve lost interest (as a professor once described it to me as) walking through the same door over and over again.
10. Solo (Reprise): Andre 3000 shows up and it’s refreshing. Did you know that Outkast used to run around their neighborhood together to get their high breath capacity for their rapping? They’d just run and rap. Listening to Andre and Big Boi will always mesmerize me. But put on Aquemini and I’ll still get emotionally exhausted. Ah this song is only Andre and is only 1:19 long. I can live with that and it’s nice for a breath of fresh air.
11. Pretty Sweet: Another new sound, it’s about time. Like a chorus climbing, but wait, it’s an orchestra. It’s instrumental until those voices come in and I cannot tell what they are. “On this side” they tell me over and over again. Frank is credited as the only Writer and Producer on this track, the only song of that kind on the whole record. At first I was about to say, it sounds like all the rest, but now it’s doing something different. That choogaloogin’ drum beat that moves forward then the voice of children singing, also in a way I cannot decipher.
12. Facebook Story: A French accented voice tells me a story. No sound. Reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder’s spoken word track on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. But instead of telling the story about using a synth in a discotheque to create the sound of the future, it’s about a girl who wants him to accept his Facebook friend request. What will the people of the future think of our online presence? I am already embarrassed for us all.
13. Close To You: Another filler track. The voices are modulated the way early Kanye was, the way Bon Iver was on his records, I cannot think of the name of enough, fast enough for this track to slip through my fingers.
14. White Ferrari: This is the track that credits John Lennon and I am excited to see what happens here. There is a soothing background sound, and his voice is doing the same thing it always does, it is just stringing along on itself, spider-webbing on itself, echoing on itself, with small electronic sounds in the background. “Spending each day of the year” a weird familiar Beatles vibe, that I’m tripping over. If I wasn’t listening so intently here for the Lennon, I don’t think I would’ve made it this far. My mind is scanning for anything Beatles and there’s only one minute left. Where did you go, John? I might need to revisit this track to find the sample. Here’s that Bon Iver/Kanye voice again. I look and see Lennon and McCartney ARE credited here, on the same track, but not together, James Litherland is between them. WHY?
15. Seigfried: Also lists Lennon and McCartney on the Writer(s) of this track. Maybe I’ll actually be able to hear it this time? But wait, all the Beatles are listed, as is …Elliot Smith? Another hero of mine. Why can I hear this Beatles vibe? At least whatever sample Ocean used here, he gives credit where credit is due, and doesn’t need to hide anything. I hear a whisper of Outkast’s “BREAK” back, off in the distance somewhere. I am too distracted by this Beatles thing to pay attention to Frank anymore. Maybe its the trailings of Sgt. Pepper I hear? But I cannot tell enough, not vividly. Regardless, this all sounds like everything else that came before it. I hear more strings and orchestration…is that the Beatles and George Martin too? Or is it just an old movie synching in with Frank….ahh there’s the Elliot, “it’s not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend.” My heart breaks and I lose focus again. I look ahead and there are two more tracks. The closing track is about 10 minutes long and I dread it. Frank’s voice comes back in its purist form, at least one that I can recognize. It sounds like the verses he’s given to Odd Future and Earl in the past. “In the dark/I’d do anything for you,” he repeats. I think I’d be more interested to find out how Frank made this record than having to listen to it. It is not charming me enough for me to come back.
16. Godspeed: Another, low-key, soft spoken opening song. The other producer on this track is Kim Burrell, who is a gospel singer from Texas and noted, online, as this generation’s Ella Fitzgerald. There is a disconnect between myself and gospel music of this year (see: Chance The Rapper’s 3). Because I am not a religious person and quite frankly veer away from it any chance I get, gospel is simply, not for me. There’s no doubt in my mind that Frank is a gorgeous singer, writer, producer, and better rapper (I just like that part better), but at the end of this hour long record (still about 10 minutes to go) I feel bored. Kim Burrell’s voice comes softly, singing sweetly at the end. And that’s all we get? “I will always love you/till the time we die,” she croons. There’s that vibrato that turns me off. Where do I turn now?
17. Futura Free: I’ve made it to the end, readers! Almost, though, because this song is ten minutes long and it sounds like it’s going to be a doozy. I know there is an alternative version of this record, and that he released some kind of music video or visual album right before this version I’m listening to came out. But I am not a big enough fan to seek it out. I’m hearing the n-word again, and its one of a few times (or I guess one of a few songs) I can count on one hand that we’ve heard it. This isn’t an album of hate on any level. It doesn’t sound angry, at least not angry in the conventional sense. If Frank is angry about heartbreak, or about loss, or about something else, he’s not yelling at anyone about it. He’s channeling himself into something that sounds sad. There’s a lot of sadness in fear, as I’m learning, the more I grown into the adult I’m becoming. And based on the verse on that Earl’s song “Sunday” “What good is West Coast weather if you’re bi-polar?/If I’ma need this sweater/I’d rather be where it’s cold” Frank has a problem with sadness the same way a lot of us do and it looks like he’s pushing it into a sound, which is the sound of Blonde. The music cuts out for a second, and I think its all over, but then it cuts to street interviews, “what’s the saddest thing you’ve ever seen?” “What super powers do you wish you had?” There’s traffic and outside “room tone” and it muffles the speaker, who doesn’t sound like Frank. This is his way of ending the record, turning the mic on the people on the street: interviewing them, asking them about themselves, “what’s the best thing about being me?”
This is a record so much about individuality, it’s a shame that, for me, it’s muffled and sandwiched between songs that all sound the same. So much of the end “what are your talents?” I think he’s saying, there are mentions of Tyler in Frank’s verse and then in another person at the end that’s being interviewed. The sound is so blown-out, likely on purpose since Frank knows what he’s doing, to close out this record. “How far is a lightyear” is the last thing you can really make out, except for the sound of the world, repeating itself, speeding up, and then stopping.
Recap: I might listen to this record again, probably not so intently, not so closely. But there IS something that speaks to me about Frank Ocean’s loneliness and the way people relate to him and his vibe, his feeling, his love, his loss, his whatever. I’m not sure I relate as much as I find it as a soundtrack to think to. I’ll likely revisit to figure out the Beatles bits, otherwise, I have enough swirling in my head right now, Frank. Regardless, thank you for being you and making this art, for sharing this art. It’s why I do what I do too.