When music and meaning don’t fully click together like a neat stack of Lego bricks, ambiguity steps in. If a record is billed as being “open to interpretation’, that’s often code for “there’s not a great deal to see here, guys.” That’s not the case for Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’, an album that will be poked and prodded at by deep-thinking fans for years to come, and for good reason.
Searching for ‘Blonde’’s true meaning is like fishing for treasure in the Great Barrier Reef. There’s bound to be something down there somewhere, but you’ve got to get past the infinite, beautiful distractions. In truth, the follow-up to ‘Channel Orange’ thrives in its own uncertainty. Its best moments play out like a lucid dream. And it works because it’s so content with not knowing an absolute truth.
Fluid and curious, the record explores like there’s always something else to see. Strict song structures are scarce, save for the dazzling ‘Ivy’ and ‘Pink + White’. Instead, flooring split-seconds and sudden jolts of life step in out of nowhere. Andre 3000’s show-stopping ‘Solo (Reprise)’ verse gives way to ‘Pretty Sweet’’s white noise and a fitting Outkast-nodding beat frenzy. ‘Nights’ splits into two parts - from disjointed, N64-on-steroids playfulness to a twisted, after-hours purple haze.
There are funny contradictions everywhere, like how an anti-drugs speech from Frank’s Auntie (‘Be Yourself’) is immediately followed by ‘Solo’’s opening line, “Hand me a towel I’m dirty dancing by myself / Gone off tabs of that acid.” Right up to the record’s title - it can be called ‘Blonde’ or ‘Blond’ - there’s no certainty. Each song is like a story with a dozen alternate endings. But there’s something refreshing in not having the answer. Especially in 2016, when one opinion can be gospel while everything else is void, when you’re told to be aware of everything while barely anyone knows the reality.
Big name cameos from the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are so subtle, they’re barely audible. The former can be heard in the background of ‘Ivy’, while Kendrick is reserved to a couple of accentuations. More airtime are given to a joke interview recorded by Frank’s brother when they were kids, on ‘Futura Free’. That’s less his way of hogging the spotlight, more proof of ‘Blonde’’s unpredictability and how split-seconds stay in the memory rather than specific songs. The way ‘Self Control’ clicks together - with the help of Yung Lean - from a disjointed love song into an emotional juggernaut. The way Frank employs Elliot Smith lyrics (“This is not my life, this is a fond farewell to a friend”) when he’s in the middle of pouring out his soul. The way ‘Ivy’’s vinyl-crackle notes bend out of shape.
It’s been a year of sudden-releases and snap judgements. But few records need to be unpacked as slowly as ‘Blonde’. It will take months for the dust to fully settle on 2016’s most long-awaited album. For ‘Channel Orange’ purists, the record’s more outward-thinking moments will understandably frustrate - Frank’s rich sense of storytelling is still here, it’s just fragmented. But once ‘Blonde’’s ambiguity begins to piece together, it becomes something remarkable.
Get your copy of the latest issue
More like this
It follows his return with ‘DHL’ last year.
Lana Del Rey, Run The Jewels, FKA twigs and Rex Orange County are also set to play the fest.
The biggest and best tracks of the week, rounded up and reviewed.
It’s his first piece of new music in two years.