Frank Ocean: Blonde first-listen review ‘An album that will be worth living with’

Frank Oceans second release in three days isnt the pop album some had predicted. But beneath the subtlety lie indelible hooks

Frank Ocean seems to like to look chaotic, even slapdash. This long-teased albums eventual release as an Apple Music stream was announced on his Tumblr with a post that read: FUCK, SORRY.. I TOOK A NAP, BUT ITS PLAYING ON APPLE RADIO RN. Its titled Blonde online and in his Boys Dont Cry magazine, which accompanies the release, but Blond on the album CD artwork which also manages to misspell Elliot [sic] Smith (Ocean borrows the entire chorus of Smiths Fond Farewell for his track Siegfried). Sonically, theres no dramatic shift from Endless, the visual album that appeared just two days ago: indeed it could be a continuation of that album. Its a very subdued record: the melodies meander, more often than not without drums, and snatches of dialogue and weird electronic glitches interrupt conventional-seeming parts. Seven of the 17 tracks are under the three-minute mark. Theres a rap verse in Japanese at the end of Nikes. One might be tempted on first hearing to think that the tangled and overlong creative process has got the better of Ocean, and that hes just released a hodge-podge of more or less finished ideas.

It only takes a couple of plays to put paid to that suspicion. Another of Oceans Tumblr posts reads THANK YOU ALL. ESPECIALLY THOSE OF YOU WHO NEVER LET ME FORGET I HAD TO FINISH. WHICH IS BASICALLY EVERY ONE OF YALL. Once youre immersed in it, it becomes abundantly clear hes taken this seriously, and this very much is a finished album. Its a carefully structured album to boot: the segue from Be Yourself, constructed from a concerned phone message from Oceans mother, into Solo, an intensely affecting song about drugged paralysis, is just the most obvious example. Elsewhere it flows in subtle ways from one track to the next, an inexorable sense of a narrative being spun out but never spelled out.

Its a complicated, indulgent, moody record, though, one that deals in textures and impressions more than in pop hooks and instant thrills. Its superstar guest spots are woven into the textures, not signposted: Beyonc, for example, just adds wordless harmonising to the adolescent memories of Pink + White, and Kendrick Lamars contribution to Skyline To is as a writer and producer, with his voice only appearing as a few cryptic, barked ad-libs. Guitars ripple throughout, some of which are certainly Radioheads Jonny Greenwood; any that are not are certainly beholden to him. James Blake appears on the credits, where he is on the record its impossible to tell, though his influence is everywhere. The only person who really leaps out is Outkasts Andr 3000, verbally somersaulting over a minute of bleeps and jazz piano on Solo (Reprise), but even he doesnt break the mood.

Its precisely that consistency of mood that brings together all the seeming weirdness into something extraordinarily listenable as a complete piece. When detuned guitar arpeggios suddenly take over the track then collapse into electronic glitch, in the episodic Nights, or when robot voices intrude on the otherwise Bill Withers-like guitar-and-vocal ballad Self Control, theyre not gimmicks or attempts to be modern: once youre in Frank Ocean world, they seem completely natural. Were seeing the maturation of a few trends of the last few years. The indiefication of hip-hop culture, which had its most mainstream expression with the bromance between Jay-Z and Chris Martin, and saw every other mainstream rap/R&B tune have a moaning white guy chorus for a while, is here expressed in infinitely more musically and emotionally sophisticated form. Likewise the weird electronic side of alt-R&B the dialogue between black American culture and British bedroom experimentalists like Blake and the xx is subsumed elegantly into Oceans writing and recording process.

Under all the subtlety and still surfaces, there are actually hooks here just not the needy, salesmanlike kind that wave at you, shouting; Here I am, remember this song! The melodies not only on the swaying soul waltz of Pink + White, or the tick-tock melody of the conventional R&B sections of Night, but in the outer-space balladry of Siegfried and the future gospel crawl of the heartbreaking Godspeed lodge very quickly in the memory and stay there. And there are single moments like the way Ocean hollers Im not brave! in Siegfried that can stop you in your tracks. Once these musical elements are in your subconscious, a complicated set of ideas starts to unfold. Among all the immediate autobiographical and introspective themes of weed, cars, women, men, consumerism, growing up and responsibility, are all kinds of complex wordplay, and references to Shakespeare and Teutonic myth, but as with everything these are subtly done. They dont clang into the songs as signals of bourgeois erudition, but slide in, signposting more and deeper themes which will only become apparent as we live with the album. And yes, its true: this is going to be an album worth living with.

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