THE GRADE A
BOTTOM LINE Honing his sound, but hiding his heart, too
In the flurry of weirdness leading up to his highly anticipated new album “Blonde” (Def Jam), Frank Ocean streamed video of himself building a staircase on his website.
The imagery was clear. To build something beautiful, artists still have to put in a lot of work. For the past four years since his breakthrough debut, “Channel Orange,” Ocean has been more or less silent, quietly putting in work behind the scenes on what would become “Blonde,” as well as the companion short film “Endless” and the magazine he edited, “Boys Don’t Cry” — all of which were released in the past week.
The result is a series of well-crafted works. “Blonde” especially shows the skill and labor he clearly poured into the songs. As much as the first single “Nikes” seems like a stream-of-consciousness river of images, it’s actually a well-constructed mix of dreams and realities, how even those with lives that people dream of still battle disappointments and still settle. “We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you,” he sings. “I’m not him, but I’ll mean something to you.”
While many of the best moments of “Channel Orange” came when Ocean was seemingly swept away by emotion, on “Blonde,” he is strictly in control.
Sure, Beyoncé may be singing on the outro of the dreamy pop ballad “Pink + White,” but Ocean remains the focus. Ocean is still experimenting here, but they are far more controlled than in the past. He reworks The Carpenters’ “Close to You” into a trip-hop riff. On the spare, wrenching “Self Control,” the bluesy guitar loop he sings over doesn’t change, but he gradually loses his swagger and esteem as he pursues a lover.
“Blonde” plays with expectations, never quite delivering the knockout punch fans were hoping for. But the reality Ocean offers is often amazingly good.