Frank Ocean’s Blonde is very vanilla

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Frank Ocean, something of an outlier in the music industry, seduced us with his croony vocals and emotional walls of sound on 2012’s Channel Orange. Tracks like “Super Rich Kids” and “Sweet Life” were very accessible. This neo-R&B album was the kind of album that got you to trust an artist and their sound quality. The singles “Thinkin Bout You” and “Bad Religion” spoke to the highs and lows of romantic attraction, a never-dull topic for young musicians. And clearly Channel Orange was so good that Ocean’s subsequent musical absence created a gaping hole in Internet culture. Wistful memes and jokes about Ocean’s reclusivity have gone on for four years as fans awaited his return.

Before that was 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra where “Novacane” and “Swim Good” became staples of the For When You Are Trying to Impress Your Friends with Your Smooth, Underground Music Taste playlist.

Ocean’s extended vacation left not only the music world yearning, but a changing social landscape missed him as well. He would poke his head up on occasion with a social justice Tumblr post and demonstrate an intellect and compassion generally uncharacteristic of millennial musicians, but then disappear again.
He released his latest album Blonde on Aug. 20, which debuted at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200. After a first listen through this 17-track ensemble, it is clear why Ocean listed bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys as influences (Ocean recorded Blonde at The Beatles’ famous Abbey Road Studios in London). To listeners, it’s obvious “Ivy” is about love before the lyrics even kick in–as soon as that uppity guitar riff looping in the background begins, in fact. The song starts with the chorus, a testament to Ocean’s sound production background and his experimentalism in music: “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me.” Ocean’s nostalgic banter continues throughout the song (“we’ll never be those kids again”) and throughout the album.
“Pink + White” is smooth and beachy, much like Channel Orange’s “Sweet Life.” It ventures slightly into Justin Bieber-esque guitar territory, but the avant-garde nature remains strong. Being that Ocean is a producer himself (and has even written and co-written tracks for John Legend, Justin Bieber and Beyonce), the artistry of the sound production techniques is evident and appreciated.
The voice modulations in “Nikes,” Blonde’s first track, are interesting in an experimental, 2016- kind of way and the track tells a rhythmically interesting story, maintained by a dreamy reverb in the background. Ocean appropriately selected this piece as the album opener as it foreshadows what you can expect from the rest of the album: bits of falsetto, asymmetrical rhythms, salty allusions to current events (“R.I.P. Treyvon, that nigga look just like me”).
Blonde’s weak spot is content. The lyrics, though masterful and poetic, are all saying the same thing: “I miss you. Come back. I am not whole without you,” or “I am so in love with you and it is the pinnacle of my being.” This is the case, too, with Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange.

So, Frank Ocean is smart R&B.

But why the constant play on love and loss? Just before Channel Orange’s release, Ocean revealed in a Tumblr post that his first love was with a heterosexual man, to which he not so ambiguously refers to the struggle of unrequited love in Channel Orange: “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you.” Ocean is no stranger to milking romanticism. Does the music industry bank on our isolation and resistance to existential loneliness to sell albums? Possibly. Probably. Though Ocean is not too much of an insider that he wouldn’t question that alongside us.
In his Tumblr confessional, he thanks his first love and the time they spent together. “I won’t forget you. I won’t forget the summer.” Ocean wants to give his listeners the experience of never forgetting. He wants us to never forget our own first loves and the endless summer that love creates.
And I’m willing to say this message is worthwhile, even if it does get a little repetitive.