Frank Ocean has just landed himself in a strange spot. He’s been messing around with his fans for months about the release of his first new music since 2012’s Channel Orange, giving release dates and not following through, keeping the recordings extremely secretive, and recently streaming a brand new “visual album” that for a brief moment everyone took to be his new album. But then, only a few days later, he dropped a brand new album unrelated to the one he released just days before (exclusively on Apple Music might I add). This is an even more bizarre release strategy than the chaos that led up to the unveiling of Kanye West’s mess-terpiece The Life of Pablo earlier this year, and the fact that two of this year’s major albums were released in such a way does not bode well for the several month lead up to nation wide release that has been the industry standard for several decades. There have been rumors that the visual album Endless was Frank’s way of getting out of his record contract with Def Jam (owned by Universal), keeping the second album secret so that he could then release it on his own label, reaping more profit than he could have with Universal.
But that’s neither here nor there. The shady legality of this little stunt is second to what were talking about here. Blond (and yes I’m going to spell it that way since that’s how it’s spelled on the album artwork) is a surprisingly subtle and uncompromisingly moody record. The fact that a work like this could have such mass appeal speaks volumes about the hype train that this has had leading up to its release. There aren’t any bangers here. Many of its tracks don’t even feature percussion of any sort. That’s not necessarily a criticism mind you. Some of Blond’s best songs succeed precisely because their sparse arrangements stay true to the intimately personal lyrics Frank brings to the table, as well as leaving room for his soulful vocals to take the spotlight. This moody haze also extends to the album’s structure as a whole. The record sort of floats in and out of focus, with short spoken word interludes and extended ambient outros thickening the haze that the it lives in.
The more I talk about this, the more the parallels with The Life of Pablo reveal themselves. Both albums take a sort of scattershot approach to the sequencing of their respective tracks, but whereas The Life of Pablo was schizophrenic and patchy, Blond remains focused enough to retain its stylistic bearings throughout its seventeen track runtime and especially unlike the former, it is solid musically throughout. The record is definitely greater than the sum of its tracks. If left on in the background, you might start to lose track of where one song ends and the next begins, with the track “Nights” even morphing into an entirely different song mid-way through.
This does reveal a problem with the album in that there aren’t many songs that I would like to revisit on their own outside the context of the whole album. You need to listen to this from start to finish for some of the songs to be the most satisfying. I know that approach is not for everybody so be warned. If you’re willing to give this album the time it takes to listen to it in full and uninterrupted, I think you’ll find this a unique, quiet little gem.
Released August 20th, 2016 by Boys Don’t Cry