Rene’s Letter-Essay #6 – Blonde by Frank Ocean (Listen Below)

Rene Itah
2/28/17
Period 5 ILA

This Letter-Essay isn’t about a book. It’s about an album. Sorry. Namely, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, released in 2016. It’s an experimental R&B album that runs for exactly one hour, and was preceded by 3 years of complete silence from Ocean, who released his cult classic debut, channel ORANGE, in 2012. In this time, rumours rose and fell, fake tracklists were “leaked”, and his absence became a joke on Twitter, giving Frank Ocean notoriety and building excitement for his next album, rumoured to be entitled Boys Don’t Cry. Well, the rumors were wrong. Instead, Frank released a visual album, Endless, a 365-page “magazine” containing photography and poetry by him and others, and finally, a real, proper album, called Blonde. Listening to how excited everyone was about a new Frank Ocean album, I had to listen to Blonde.

The album opens with Nikes, a confusing pop-ish song about materialism. Puzzling listeners with detached lyrics and Frank’s voice digitally pitched up to the point of becoming unrecognizable, it establishes that if fans were expecting a continuation of the styles and themes of channel ORANGE, they’re definitely not getting it.
Next comes Ivy, a romantic, nostalgic song that once again, features a pitched-up voice. However, in Ivy, the effect is not so extreme – you wouldn’t know about the pitch shifting unless you knew Frank’s voice very well. Sliding guitar flowers around his heartbreaking lyrics, including “you ain’t a kid no more / we’ll never be those kids again” and “[…]all the things I didn’t mean to say, didn’t mean to do / did you mean to? me too.” However, the track ends by abandoning its open accessibility and transforms into a digitally altered screech of “dreaming…”, followed by the sound of a studio getting trashed. Clearly, this love he’s describing did not end well. I was surprised at the screech, considering how romantic the rest of the song feels.
Then comes Pink + White, a pure R&B jam that recalls Pharrell’s N.E.R.D. era and Prince’s happier music. Piano is joined by the constant sound of birds chirping, strings, and a jazzy bassline. The end of the song finds Frank’s voice joined by backing “Ooooh”s, courtesy of Beyonce. Yeah, he has Beyonce singing backup. I liked that, because it shows Ocean’s confidence in the album. He’s not getting overshadowed.
Be Yourself is an interlude consisting of a voicemail recording of a mother begging her child to “rely and trust upon your own decisions […] be yourself, and know that that is good enough”. Backed by a melancholy keyboard loop, it’s the perfect palate cleanser in between the joyous Pink + White and the desperate loneliness that is Solo.
Solo not only serves as a bridge between the accessible and experimental sides of the record, but is also an excellent showcase for Ocean’s songwriting ability. ‘Inhale, in hell there’s heaven”, he sings, pronouncing inhale / in hell so that they are virtually indistinguishable.
Next is Skyline To, a touching song that would be a centerpiece if it weren’t sandwiched between Solo and Self Control. Self Control begins with a severely pitched up voice (turns out, the pitched-up voice represents a younger Ocean), and quickly transitions into a guitar ballad. It may as well be a capella, though, because Ocean’s voice is front and center here. The outro very may well be one of the most beautiful pieces of music our earthly souls may ever hear, beginning at roughly 2:30. He sings “i know you gotta leave / take down some summer time / (give up) just tonight” again and again, as the layering of instruments and sounds around his voice swells; strings, acoustic guitar, an indescribable sound in between an electric guitar and a howling voice, and a barking vocal sample saying “someone”.
After lo-fi interlude Good Guy comes sweeping epic of a track, Nights (spelled Night.s in his magazine). It begins a clattering of metallic guitars that is quickly joined by Frank’s voice and a repeating drum loop. “[i] wanna see nirvana but don’t wanna die yet”, he sings in the hook, backed by buzzing synth chords. Then comes a short bridge, and then the ugliest guitar noise you’ve ever heard. A repeating out-of-tune riff that continues over a thumping drum that’s not quite a kick. Then, exactly 30 minutes into the one-hour long album, part II of Nights begins. Frank’s voice is subtly pitched up in the same way it was in Ivy as he repeats the chorus of Nights over a melancholy, bass-heavy beat accompanied by reversed kick drums and light bells.
No sooner than the slow, emotional beauty of Nights ends, Solo (Reprise) begins. It’s nothing like Solo, featuring nothing but Andre 3000 rapping over an electronic beat. Frank is nowhere to be seen. I didn’t understand why you would but a rapid-fire rap on an otherwise R&B album, especially considering it’s all Andre and no Frank. You’re left confused, but not as confused as you’ll be listening to the next song.
Pretty Sweet begins with what I imagine an orchestra on fire sounds like. Roars, detuned strings, and yelling reign supreme until their sudden stop at 0:25, when Frank’s unintelligible singing is joined by a choir, whose only recognizable lyric is “nothing is for life”, while an ominous keyboard loop plays. Then, the song suddenly gains a beat, rapid-fire drums shooting left and right until a children’s choir begins to sing, and the drums are toned down to only a kick and snare. You can hear the lisps and unmistakably child-like singing, and it’s shocking when compared to the violent cacophony that the rest of the track is.
After interludes Facebook Story and Close To You comes White Ferrari. If you only listen to one song on the album, this is it. Frank’s voice is backed by an almost quiet pad playing minor chords that are stuck in the same loop. The loop continues as Frank describes driving with a lover in the present tense, even though later in the song, we learn that he’s describing an event from when he’s 16. He interpolates The Beatles’ Here, There, and Everywhere (“spending each day of the year…”), and is suddenly joined by a reverbed out copy of himself screaming the background vocals. “one too many years some tattooed eyelids on a facelift / mind over matter is magic, i do magic / if you think about it / it’ll be over in no time / and that’s life”, he cries, and then falls silence as the same 3 muted piano chords dip in and out until they’re joined by James Blake singing what may be some of the most beautiful poetry made by a human. I’ll tell you what it is in a minute.
After anguished ballad Seigfreid, featuring heartbreaking lyric “less morose and more present / dwell on my gifts for a second / a moment, one solar flare, we’re consumed, so why not / spend this flammable paper on the film that’s my life” there’s not really much left to the album. Godspeed and Futura Free function as more of bonus tracks than real additions to the album.

Ok, I’m done with the track-by-track analysis.

One set of lyrics that really struck me were the aforementioned lines sung by James Blake in the outro of White Ferrari. That’s at 3:05. “I’m sure we’re taller in other dimensions / you say we’re small and not worth the mention / you’re tired of moving, your body’s aching / we could vacate, there’s places to go / clearly this isn’t / all that there is can’t take what’s been given / but we’re so okay here, we’re doing fine / primal and naked, you dream of walls that hold us in prison / that’s just a skull, ‘least that’s what they call it / and we’re free to roam”. The reason I love these lyrics so much is because of how much metaphor they use. James calls his skull a prison, and that alone raises so many questions. Is he holding a secret? Is this about mental illness? Creative expression? My theory is that these lines are about homophobia. Frank revealed in 2012 that the loves he described on his debut album were all men, but rarely addresses it in the album. The first line is about wishing he weren’t so disenfranchised, the second describes the under-representation of LGBT people in society and law, the third represents the fight for equality, and so on.

If I had to rate this album out of 10, it would be a 10. And every other thing I said was a 10/10 was a lie. This is it.

Sincerely, Rene

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5 thoughts on “Rene’s Letter-Essay #6 – Blonde by Frank Ocean (Listen Below)

  1. Rene,
    I can’t tell you how incredibly detailed and interesting your “album essay” was. It really showed how songs can truly reflect the singer’s personality and that they are very powerful. I may even do this in the future, as it may at times be more informative than a letter essay. I can’t say to improve upon anything as this was very good, but maybe just to give a bit more on what you found interesting in the album.
    Sincerely,
    Trevor

  2. René,
    I really like how you decided to do an album instead of a book. Namely a Frank Ocean album. I myself will have to admit he’s a pretty good artist, and like how you decided to review it. I think you did really well turning an album into a detailed explanation and what was so great about it.

  3. Dear Rene,
    Amazing letter essay. I love that you chose to do an album instead of a book. The way you explained and described each song really brought out Frank Ocean’s personality and your opinions. I also liked that you included lyrics that stood out to you from a multitude of songs. I might consider listening to a song of his in the future. Great job!

    -Alexandra

  4. Dear Rene, I really enjoyed this story. It really felt like you were talking to me instead of writing an essay. I love how passionate you are about music.

    Tessa Pavia

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