The acclaimed album is more than a collection of songs.
The end of August marks the fifth anniversary of Frank Ocean’s 2016 masterpiece, Blonde. The album came a day after the release of Ocean’s Endless, a visual album released under Def Jam Recordings. This was a punch in the gut to Def Jam, seeing as Endless satisfied the conditions of Ocean’s contract with them. The promotion used for it ended up generating attention for Blonde, which was released under Ocean’s own label, Boys Don’t Cry, exclusively licensed to Apple Music for a deal rumoured to be worth 20 million dollars.
Independence plays a large part in both the conception and musicality of Blonde. Throughout the album Ocean has multiple solo writing credits, and most others are just him and a few others –– a feat that is becoming uncommon in an increasingly collaborative music industry (Kanye West’s “Pure Souls” from Donda alone has 11 writers credited, as a recent example). Moreover, there is not a single song on the album that does not list Ocean himself as one of the producers.
On the surface, Blonde is the most airy sounding project in Ocean’s discography, where the majority of the album is upheld by gentle chords, beatless melodies and drum loops. Yet instrumentals are not the focal point of this album: the storytelling is. Still, Ocean’s minimalist approach to the production stretches the definition of R&B pretty thin, creating the ethos of this album with an emphasis on lyrics and story. In this sense, he threads a needle, touching on places and feelings but never giving enough away to the listener for any major dots to be connected.
In a 2016 New York Times interview, Ocean describes his commitment to his storytelling on the album, saying, “How we experience memory sometimes, it’s not linear. We’re not telling the stories to ourselves, we know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.”
Following a strong opening collection of songs with “Nikes,” “Ivy,” and “Pink + White,” Blonde reaches its midway point with “Nights.” The first half is bolstered by an upbeat rap and spoken word track that sees Ocean describing a previous relationship. After the guitar-laden beat switch moves into a calmer, more subdued rhythm, Ocean raps about his history having moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In a BBC interview he admitted that he hated it at first.
Part of what makes Blonde such a complete and cohesive work is its use of skits, interludes, and a reprise to tie everything together. The use of interludes starts as a voicemail on the fourth track, “Be Yourself,” and continues onto the following tracks, “Good Guy,” “Facebook Story,” “Pretty Sweet,” before ending with “Close to You” as the last interlude leading into the album’s final four tracks. What these tracks do is almost equivalent to a palate cleanser before the album progresses into the following songs. Towards the end of the record, the narratives of “Facebook Story” and “Close to You” set up the broken-hearted ambience that is laid down by Ocean’s love story gone amiss on “White Ferrari.”
To put Blonde into words is not an easy thing to do. There’s a lot going on at the same time but it works. It is the sound of a vision fully realized, and there is something ineffable about the way this album felt back in 2016. Around its release was a very special period of anticipation and excitement that brought people together in a way not many artists have been able to match since then.
To this day, Blonde has aged beautifully. It has received widespread acclaim, and has since become the zeitgeist of a special period in music: the 2010s. Considering the story behind the album and how it has continued to inspire musicians since, it’s fair to say that Blonde is a record that will transcend time and continue to be revered as one of the best albums of our generation.