Frank Ocean's 'Blonde' Proves Why Artists Shouldn't Be Rushed

Frank Ocean
Courtesy Photo

Frank Ocean

In the four years spent away from being an active performing artist, Frank Ocean lived. When he released his sophomore album Blonde to stream exclusively via Apple Music on Saturday, the singer-songwriter published a note to fans and followers on his Tumblr page that explained his lengthy hiatus. He recalled "cruising the suburbs of Tokyo in RWB Porches," "throwing parties around England," "going to Mississippi and playing in the mud with amphibious quads," and casting models at a Senegal kung fu dojo. Not to mention gnarly times spent in Tulum, Paris, Miami and Berlin "to witness [nightclub] Berghain for myself."

To be fair to thirsty fans, Ocean’s Blonde rollout was full of pump fakes and teases. In April 2015, a presumably eager Ocean (along with his Def Jam record label) hinted that the follow-up to his critically acclaimed major-label debut Channel Orange would arrive in July 2015 under the title Boys Don’t Cry. That month, and eventually year, would come and go with no new material (not counting his rare appearance on "Wolves" from Kanye West's The Life of Pablo) or any explanations.

This summer, there were more missteps, like the looped Apple Music-tagged video footage on the boysdontcry.co site at the top of August with the singer seen in an empty warehouse constructing something. Puzzled viewers took their wildest guesses as ambient sounds played around him. Still -- no music. It was the next best thing to watching paint dry.

Thankfully, in an unexpected turn of events last Thursday, the Frank Ocean show finally began. What was once a stagnant loop became a 45-minute film called Endless, where Ocean's wood shop exercise materialized into the building of a staircase to the sounds of new tunes. Two days later, Ocean finally dropped the album called Blonde (or Blond, if you go by the cover copy). The long-assumed title, Boys Don’t Cry, is now an art magazine Ocean published and released Saturday at pop-up shops in New York, Los Angeles, London and Chicago.

Frank Ocean Drops New Album 'Blonde,' Gives Out 'Boys Don't Cry' Magazine at Pop-Up Shops

Within his four-year disappearance, a challenge lay in front of Ocean: Not only did he have to follow up a debut that earned him a Grammy Award and much praise from peers and fans alike, he now seemingly had to put together a project that merited the amount of time he spent crafting it. If the last few days of watching ravenous consumers unwrap and unpack both Endless and Blonde on social media is any indication, his latest 17-track set is that and more.

For Ocean, words are his greatest weapon. He’s not a vocal powerhouse like Miguel. He’s not a dancing machine like Chris Brown. He’s not a funky, one-man-band like Anderson .Paak. But his ability to turn a phrase bests each of his contemporaries. “If you could fly then you'd feel south/ Up north's getting cold soon,” Frank sings on Blonde’s “Pink + White," where he thoughtfully compares a lover’s need for warmth in a relationship to a bird fleeing winter’s chill and heading to the tropics. This is what makes Ocean special.

The LP opens with “Nikes,” a mellow number that has less to do with the sportswear brand and more with its iconic check symbol. Frank realizes that many women have been after him to take advantage of his wealth. They want checks (a term of cash here) and a lot of them. "Said she need a ring like Carmelo," he adds, likening her need for a wedding ring to the New York Knicks superstar’s burning desire to win NBA championship bling. He continues to weave in mentions of Shakespeare’s Othello, gunned-down black teen Trayvon Martin and mermaids. These are not the thoughts of a hurried man.

Several listens of Blonde reveal just how crucial Frank’s time away from the spotlight was to his new music. He’s a gifted songwriter, but it’s his life experiences that power his pen. On "Solo," Frank jogs over organ chords, both romanticizing and lamenting his experience with drugs. He begins talking about a joyous acid trip that made him dance alone with the vigor of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, but then he drifts into memories of getting high and enjoying some intimacy with a smoking buddy in Chicago. The second verse, though, ends with Frank unfortunately lonely in Colorado. "I brought trees to blow through, but it's just me and no you," he raps melodically. "Stayed up 'til my phone died, smoking big, rolling solo."

Frank Ocean Actually Debuted the 'Blonde' Tracks 'Ivy' & "Seigfried' Back in 2013: Watch

The imagery on Blonde is vivid. "Self Control" finds him begging an ex to keep the fond memories they have of their past life nuzzled closely, even when with a new lover. "Keep a place for me," he asks. "I’ll sleep between y’all." There are gracious love stories and darker ones about losing it ("It’s quite all right to hate me now," he surrenders on "Ivy"), references to bouts with stress (on "Nights," he escapes the dreaded 27 club and happily enters age 28), and even a quickie interlude about a crummy first date at a gay bar with "Good Guy." In 2012, days prior to Orange’s release, Ocean revealed that he’s loved both men and women. That context is key on this album because that fluidity is apparent throughout. If he’s pensive on the track, each line is delivered with the fragility of a man nearing his wit's end. If he’s reflective and indifferent, it’s easy to imagine him shrugging his shoulders or rolling his eyes. The feels on Blonde are precise.

Musically, this is a quiet album. The tracks are sparse, typically led by keys or guitar licks. Like the latter part of Channel Orange, Blonde feels like it’s best served during the evening when thoughts tend to roam free and memories seem to regress from healed scars to raw wounds. Ocean is a master at reliving his yesterdays over music. Also, at wondering aloud. None of this album sounds like anything that could have been done on the fly. There are no basic beats that were simply whipped up on a Macbook and emailed from an of-the-moment producer. There are well-considered uses of Auto-Tune, screeches and warbles.

Even the guest appearances couldn’t have been easy to score. Kendrick Lamar sprinkles in parenthetical exclamations on “Skyline To.” Frank hang-glides on Beyoncé’s coos toward the end of "Pink + White." He even procured spastic raps from the elusive Andre 3000 on "Solo (Reprise)," the only verse the Outkast rhymer has released in 2016 (though he did sing a line or two worth of background vocals on West’s "30 Hours" from TLOP).

These things take time. And now that it’s out (finally!), it’s clear that Ocean’s was well-spent. In those exaggerated, agonizing years that fans complained about what he was doing while not feeding their voracious appetites for his particular brand of mood music, it’s clear that his travels, explorations, extensive introspection and, yes, even the moments that he seemed to just be goofing off, equated to him making another masterpiece.

Watch Frank Ocean's Visually Stunning 'Nikes' Video

"I had the time of my life making all of this," Ocean wrote of Blonde on his Tumblr in a separate post. "Thank you all. Especially those of you who never let me forget I had to finish. Which is basically every one of ya’ll. Haha. Love you." He laughs off the peanut gallery's clamor, but the pressure to put out new work must have weighed heavily on him. It’s astonishing that Frank didn’t fold. A lesser man would have done himself a favor and given the people what they wanted perhaps before the project was ripe.

What would Blonde have sounded like if Ocean had tinkered with it less, given in to everyone’s need, and released it earlier? Different. Fortunately, he didn’t. The result is a testament to the space he required and the break he took. It’d be wise of fans to consider that the next time around.