Before I get into the meat of my argument, I want to clear a few things. Music is up to the beholder, and just because you find something disagreeable doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or lacks value. While I have issues with Blonde from a musical point of view, I recognize that a pop album of this caliber is massive for the LGBTQ community — I also recognize that I am not an authority to speak on this topic any further.
In the end, the only truth we have is that this is Frank Ocean’s album; Blonde was released on his schedule and crafted to his desire. As he advises on the album’s fourth track, “Be yourself and know that that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else.”
Let’s start with the obvious: Blonde isn’t Channel Orange. The latter harbors a mélange of influences — R&B, funk, psych rock etc. — that explodes and recedes at a moment’s notice, while the former is a strict exercise in minimalism, stripped of flash and percussion, leaving only a guitar or a keyboard and Ocean’s voice. Comparing two albums so wholly different is extremely difficult, maybe even trivial, but there are baselines by which both albums can be separately judged. Despite the Blonde’s many highlights, the album falls short of what Channel Orange achieved, mostly due to its lack of dynamics and cohesion.
There are some truly fantastic moments on Blonde: the irresistible groove of “Pink + White,” the Bon Iver-esque conclusion of “White Ferrari,” the echoing harmonies of “Self Control.” Lyrically, Ocean came to bat, delivering daily quotables like, “I’m skipping showers and switching socks, sleeping good and long,” on “Solo,” as well as clever bars like, “She said she need a ring like Carmelo / Must be on that white like Othello,” on “Nikes.”
Ocean’s voice has grown even stronger since Channel Orange, and yet he rarely explores its scope, instead opting for an (over)abundance of cartoonish vocal effects. It takes up three-fifths of opener “Nikes” and it detracts from what could have been a perfect track on “Self Control”; it’s on “Seigfried,” “Futura Free,” and “Nights,” although it at least is masked as a passable human tone on the last.
Despite his positive review, Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop noted that tracks like “Nikes,” “Skyline To,” and “Futura Free” are forgettable, built on watered-down backdrops. The internet’s busiest music nerd then concludes his review by saying that he hopes that people don’t find the music too “sleepy” or “uneventful.” This is a common theme among most reviews, but I think it’s impossible to deny that Blonde musically lacks dynamics. Reviews also praise the album for its experimental nature — it is a leap when comparing to Channel Orange — although the album easily blends into itself at various moments, and excuse its lack of organization as part of its character. On just about any other album, this would result in point deductions.
And yet, Blonde has received nothing short of critical acclaim. As pointed out by Metacritic, 18 out of 19 outlets listed rated the album as an 80 or higher on a 100-point scale, eight of them claiming 90 or higher. Only The Independent dared to criticize Ocean’s third effort, giving it a (probably too low) score of 40.
The most common criticism I expect is that I am too swift to judge the album; that I just don’t “get it” yet. There’s a certain irony to the repeated instructions of sitting with the album and letting it reveal itself through time in day(s)-after reviews. If someone is capable of recognizing that they enjoy something almost immediately, why shouldn’t they be equally capable of recognizing that something is lacking? Of course, the consumption of music is dependent, in most cases, on time and space. As a good friend of mine put it: “Have you listened to it when your heart is broken? Have you listened to it on a plane to a place you’ve never been? Have you listened to it after listening to a Joni Mitchell album?” Is it shortsighted to judge an album without listening to it in a wide array of contexts, or does all art exist within a cultural bubble? I’m not sure I know and I’m not sure there is a right answer.
Setting aside fluid opinions, let’s examine the hype that led up to Blonde. Over the course of four years, Ocean missed numerous premiere dates, spurring torrents of angry tweets threatening abandon and nudging his rabid Reddit community down a rabbit hole of sleepless nights and conspiracy theories. I side with Vince Staples, and surely the majority of artists, that artists owe fans nothing when it comes to releasing new music. “Hey, Frank Ocean, put out this album on Friday because you never said you were going to but we need it now and we don’t like you anymore,” Staples told Zane Lowe in an interview on Beats 1 Radio. “You’re not a person when you make music. You’re a link. They just want to click it.”
There have been so many great albums released in 2016, in R&B alone — Gallant, Nao, Anderson .Paak, Phonte, Jamila Woods, KING, just to name a few — and yet, the gaze of the people has remained on Ocean, and Ocean alone. We have put so much energy into waiting for this one album from an artist that we, in many ways rightly so, elevated to the highest degree, and with each delay, its legend grew taller. And now that it has finally arrived, we can’t accept that this album is anything less than what we imagined it would be, overlooking its faults with a grin. I like to call this Frank Ocean Stockholm Syndrome.
When you come into something with such titanic expectations, you tend to favor yourself. How would we judge this album if it was released by an artist of a lesser stature? An artist completely unknown? What if it wasn’t released by Frank Ocean post-Channel Orange? If we are honest with ourselves, I think the reviews would be quite different.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the celebrity of an artist, especially one who is adept at cloaking himself in the thick of mystery. All of a sudden, you have a new album, visual album, and magazine in your hands, so why shouldn’t you be excited? But as one Guardian commenter pointed out, the end result feels like some of the art was lost somewhere in the midst of portraying artistry.
Let me reiterate that there is a lot about Blonde that is great, and I have no doubt that time will reveal some intricacies that I have yet to notice, or I will simply age with some of its tracks. For many people, this album really is perfect, and that’s the subjective beauty of music; no one has to listen to my criticisms or my philosophical meanderings. I could be wrong, and, honestly, every time I start “Nikes,” I hope that I am.