Frank Ocean's "Blonde" is worth the wait in every way imaginable.
"Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of my life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had it’s rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good."
Nostalgia. I keep coming back to this excerpt from Frank Ocean's Tumblr note explaining the origin of his album and its working title, Boys Don't Cry. Nostalgia has always been integral to Ocean's music in a way that fits the futile longing his voice suggests, as well as his skill at recreating scenes through vivid language and memory-driven synesthetic hues. Yes, "nostalgia" is one-half of the title of his first mixtape released under his current moniker, and yes, culture's more overrun than ever with paeans to bygone eras (hi, "Stranger Things," Pokémon Go, every major cinematic reboot), but it's deeper than that with Ocean. One of his two previous releases begins with the words "When we were kids...," the other with the sound of an antiquated PS2 gaming system booting up. Whether he's looking at yesterday, years ago, or even forever, it's with rose-colored glasses that affect equal parts misty-eyed joy and melancholy.
Blonde was released in the part of the year most adept at inducing nostalgia. Nothing like the final warm days of the year to remind us of their heightened desperation in childhood, mortality, and finality. It had to be this way. None of the other rumored release dates would have allowed for this effect, something like landing on a trampoline at just the right moment to catch the previous bounce's momentum. Just as you're fighting to get in those last day trips or endless nights, just as you're seeing kids devoting every ounce of their beings to freedom in a last gasp, Frank's there to hit you with an undercut to the gut.
The wearied haze of the umpteenth 80+ degree day is the operating mode of Blonde's music, a moment when "Summer Madness" seems like a better choice than "Jungle Boogie," "Let's Get it On" over "Got to Give it Up," "Summer Breeze" over "That Lady." At a certain point, you just stop looking for a "song of the summer" slapper out of exhaustion. Unlike the way that SremmLife 2's delays probably hurt its chances to take over the season with hit singles and catchphrases, Blonde never had any of that potential, and it's better heard as a long sigh at the end of a season than an attempted breath of life. For one, "beats" barely factor in, only existing for about a third of the album, shed in favor of guitar or organ-led minimalism. Meandering structures, melodies that vanish as soon as they're fully realized, abrupt transitions-- this is not the bedrock upon which hits are made. The album's magnificence is right there in front of you, but you can't grasp it. You're left looking for the nonexistent end of the rainbow, a cat chasing a laser pointer.
Channel Orange hammered home the idea that Ocean could carve out a career in any number of pop-based R&B formats, from the self-contained neo-soul of "Thinkin Bout You," to the swinging funk of "Sweet Life," to the EDM-adjacent, Calvin Harris synth stabs of "Pyramids," to the mystical, secular gospel of "Bad Religion." Not so here. If we're looking for a precedent to Blonde's barely-there, but all-encompassing sound in Ocean's previous music, it'd be his performance of "Forrest Gump" at the 2013 Grammys, a stripped-down hymnal that seemed shambolic at the time. In the 3.5 years since, he's written more specifically for that format, allowing his new songs to flow in and out of movements without concern for verses, choruses, refrains. The "Nikes" hook only appears once, its two verses startlingly contrast each other; its bridge, like the staircase Frank was building on his livestream, leads to nowhere.
People have levied the same complaints against Blonde that Kanye's Life Of Pablo received earlier this year-- it's "incomplete," it sounds like demos, it's too "art." If you're grading it on some Holland-Dozier-Holland, Max Martin, "perfect pop"-type scale, yes, those are true. Using "White Ferrari" as a lesson plan for a songwriting class would be as ass-backwards as using a James Joyce passage on the reading comprehension portion of the SAT, as hopeless as trying to get a room full of 3rd graders to play Sun Ra on their recorders. These spare, sometimes aimless wanderings would be the stuff of nightmares in the hands of amateurs, but for a Grammy-winning, ghostwriting wunderkind, they're dreamlike. You may have no idea how you arrived at the climax of "Self Control," an Everest-sized peak jutting up from a campfire folk song, but you can't help but marvel at it and try to hold onto however much of its quicksilver you can grasp.
Since he all but disappeared off the face of the earth after Channel Orange, Frank's popped up as a wispy apparition on songs by John Mayer, Beyoncé, and Kanye, somewhat recalling his ghostwriting days in his bit-part roles. Even when he was given his own track on an updated version of TLOP, it seemed like he was being used for his skills, stripped for his parts, rather than having input on lyrics or song structuring. The tables have turned on Blonde. Now he's getting Bey to make possibly her first wordless guest appearance ever, getting Kendrick Lamar to provide just a few ad-libs, getting a flash-in-the-pan verse from his counterpart in elusiveness, André 3000, getting Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono's blessing to crib literally six words from "Here, There, And Everywhere." This, although little else about the album screams it, is Boss Status.
Frank arrived at a place where he could take all the resources he needed, all of the time he needed, all of the Apple Music dollars, and do something that in any other situation would be unmarketable. Blonde is now part of a defy-expectations continuum that includes Sly Stone's There's A Riot Going On, Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, David Bowie's Low, Miles Davis' On the Corner, Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly, Kanye's Yeezus, Prince's Around The World In A Day-- if you listen close enough, you can almost hear the record executives wringing their hands and intoning, "but where's the single?" Having enough money and clout to follow up Purple Rain, good kid, mAAd city, or Channel Orange with an aggressive left turn is the ultimate goal.
This current phase is what Ocean was asking the cosmos for when he was a kid. And yet. Similarly to the diorama-esque exploration of genres on Channel Orange's songs, Ocean inhabited different characters across the album -- a rich kid, a junkie, a pimp, a lovelorn college student. Perhaps it was a remnant from the days when he was only writing for other people, but we never got too many actual glimpses into his life. Blonde is one big window into his past, his dating history, his family, a picture that veers from hyper-specific (balls-sticking-to-humid-jeans levels of TMI at times) to unabashedly universal (you're lying to yourself if you think you've never thought "We'll never be those kids again"). We're actually able to see him squirming around this new life he's built for himself, not loving every moment, but able to see that really though, it is "all good." That's life. It's not contained within a perfect, mathematically precise pop song. It's messy, it's shouted ("Ivy"), it's mumbled ("Good Guy") at times. It feels great but also like you'll never recapture that greatness. That's summer. You can't put your finger on why, but you're overjoyed and overwhelmed at the same time. That's Blonde.