Frank Ocean Has Seen Hell, and It’s a Loop

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

It’s difficult to recognize Frank Ocean’s Blonde as a 21st century R&B record. In a genre dominated by drum machines, heavy synth bass, and auto-tuned vocals, Ocean has turned in an album that hangs its hat on real instruments, spare arrangements, and raw vocal energy. While pop ditties often sour with age, Blonde offers more with each listen. The album is so engaging in part because of its broad thematic scope. What makes it truly special, however, is Ocean’s ability and willingness to lay his emotions bare.

Blonde features a crop of songs that could, in a pinch, serve as party anthems. “Ivy’s” collection of reverb-drenched guitars give the song a trippy backdrop for a story about a tortured romance. On “Nights,” Ocean makes rare use of a drum machine to channel the melodic hip-hop patterns of Childish Gambino and Chance The Rapper. “Nights” represents Blonde at its most whimsical, “Oooh nani nani” sings Ocean, “This feel like a quaalude.” But while these songs are the easiest to sing along to, they do not carry the bulk of Blonde’s emotional weight.

Apart from “Nights,” Blonde strikes a more intimate and personal tone. On “White Ferrari,” Ocean borrows the melody of the Beatles’ “Here There Everywhere” to capture the malaise of a decadent lifestyle. “Good Guy” sounds like the listener is hanging out in Ocean’s dorm room as he sits behind his Wurlitzer and tells you about a shitty blind date (with a man, for what it’s worth). Songs like these give Blonde a strong musical and lyrical honesty.

Blonde’s hallmark trait is its earnestness. Spare arrangements of real instruments serve as a vehicle for Ocean’s raw emotion. On the song “Solo,” Ocean marvels at his self-destructive tendencies accompanied by nothing but backing vocals and an organ. I’ve seen hell, it’s a loop,”  sings Frank on “Siegfried.” Blonde displays a strong commitment to originality, incorporating inventive chord changes and unconventional song structures rather than relying on sampled audio and formulaic songwriting. “Siegfried” ends as Ocean heads off to “Inhale the vapor, exhale once and think twice/eat some shrooms maybe have a good cry about you/See some colors light hang glide off the moon.” The album’s simple yet powerful instrumentation allows Ocean to explore a wide range of emotions. Consequently, Blonde offers a refreshing display of male vulnerability rarely seen in a genre dominated by machismo.

Blonde has a political streak best embodied by the album’s first and last tracks. Ocean opens the album with the anti-commercial anthem “Nikes” in which he sings “RIP Trayvon that n**** look just like me.” Blonde’s final track, “Futura Free,” mocks the overproduced and hyper masculine styles within Hip-Hop and R&B with its domineering synthesizers and lyrics like “I’ma let my nuts hang/N**** you got some like me don’t you?.” That satire within “Futura Free” reflects just how rare Blonde’s emotional honesty is. “Futura Free” is everything the rest of Blonde isn’t. The song’s lyrics are over-sexed, narcissistic, and hyper-masculine. Its arrangement is overcrowded with heavy synthesizers, and Ocean’s voice is auto-tuned and drenched in reverb. Listening to “Futura Free” demonstrates what sets Blonde apart from other albums in its genre. The song also illustrates the connection between Blonde’s musical arrangements and its ability to haul such emotional freight. “Futura Free’s” deliberately over-processed sound reflects its caustic lyrics in the same way Blonde’s raw sound illuminates Ocean’s lyrical sincerity.

It would be a mistake to allow one song to speak for this multifaceted album, but “Self Control” does a good job encapsulating everything that makes Blonde special. The song provides raw and real music, fitting of Ocean’s emotional honesty. Austin Feinstein (the guitarist and singer for underground LA band Slow Hollows) offers up jazzy melancholic guitar licks that provide Ocean with a simple but sturdy platform for his vocal acrobatics. Ocean laments paths not taken, singing “Wish we’d grown up on the same advice,” while meditating on the futility of his romantic situation, “I came to visit ‘cause you see me like a UFO/That’s like never cause I make you use your self control/and you made me lose my self-control.” The song culminates in an a choral arrangement of Ocean’s multi-tracked vocals that is as surreal as it is transcendent. Like this song, Blonde is guaranteed to leave you with chills, if not in tears.

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