20 November 2017

Frank Ocean's 2016 album Blonde interepreted as a modern day bildungsroman.

Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde is my most played album ever. According to my Last.fm history I have a cumulative track play of over 1,200. Divide that by 17 (the album has 17 tracks), that’s equivalent to me playing the album approximately 65 times front to back over the course of a year. That’s at least once every week. I’ve spent more time listening to Blonde than hanging out with some of my closest and most cherished friends. I’ve cried to Godspeed on train and Uber rides home, used Self Control as a soundtrack for a myriad of emotions deliberate and not, and adapted the line “I’m not brave!” as a rallying cry rather than an admission of weakness.

I started listening to Frank Ocean when I was a senior in college. The noise of the coming out story that surrounded the release of channel ORANGE and its subsequent placement on top of multiple year-end lists made it impossible to be put down as just “okay” in fear of not being part of the zeitgeist. There’s no reason not to like Thinking ‘Bout You even without the backstory, but the one-two punch of Pyramids and Bad Religion was a test of good taste. But as much as I wanted it to - or maybe I was still denying to know myself then - the album did not hit home.

Blonde, however, is a different story. It came to me at a time when I’ve been feeling emotions far more intensely, the way you do when you’re a teenager not yet having met the idea that most things are fleeting. It made me realize that being too attached too fast is a fatal flaw that I have that I can’t get rid of nor want to. It rebuked the self-awareness I took pride in, the kind that is used to cover up one’s mediocrity and vanity in self-deprecation and jest, and in turn showed me that the truer and more rewarding kind is the one you acquire after leaning into the pain.

There’s a myriad of ways to experience this album and I’m pretty sure I haven’t explored all of it. On first listen, it will sound awkwardly melodramatic without the humor of a Lorde album. After a few repeats you’ll catch glimpses of candid vulnerability hidden beneath layers of production, like a tired soul peeking out from a Kerouac novel. I found that the most revealing experience is if you ignore the whole avant-garde façade and treat it not as an abstract mishmash of ideas but as a linear bildungsroman narrative. If good kid, m.A.A.d city was Moonlight’s “Little”, Blonde is “Chiron” and “Black”. And true to its form as an album that encourages multiple interpretations, it starts and wanders in memory.


I’ve got two versions

The first sound you hear evokes a feeling not unlike a surprise dip into a pool at a party you didn’t want to attend. An extended intro with a pitched up voice follows mimicking the state of being too drunk to swim out of the water but not drunk enough to stop your mind’s swimming thoughts. Instead of words we have come to expect from a hedonistic pop song, Frank sings of counterfeit shoes, Othello, mermaids, and dead friends - like how your mind works when you’re on a trip and the most random of ideas feel profound. Three minutes in and the song clears up, the way drugs wear off to throw you back into reality, or the way your intense feelings toward a person brings out an ability to focus you didn’t know you had, even if only for a second.

The thesis for the album is introduced thereafter in a few lines that use the word “but” excessively sans the duality that is expected to come with it. It’s also in the packaging: the album art says Blond (masculine) even though the official title is Blonde (feminine), neither word describing the hair color nor the sexuality of the man in the photo. A man with a strong ripped body and post-brawl bandaged fingers but is covering his face defensively - shy, vulnerable, and wet. And if that doesn’t make it obvious enough, the border is neither black nor white but gray.

Ivy / Pink + White

It’s all downhill from here

After the druggy first track the album moves into a typical Frank Ocean setting: a childhood summer where love was most valid. If you listen closely to Ivy and Pink + White you can hear trees rustling and birds singing in the distance. You smell the beach, you feel the heat. Summer break is a period of freedom from schoolwork and adults where the only thing you have to keep in check is your emotions. An inevitable end hangs over your head but seems unimportant compared. Every happy memory burns twice as more. Every heartbreak lingers longer. It’s the best and the rest of your life in microcosm at a time that you could not have possibly recognized it as such.

Be Yourself / Solo / Skyline To / Self Control

Summer’s not as long as it used to be

Most of us consider college as the most transformative time in our lives. It is supposedly our first taste of adulthood and responsibility. But like those childhood summers, the freedom that we ascribe to it is cushioned by a certain amount of privilege and the fact that our parents will be there to break the fall. In Blonde, the run from Be Yourself to Self Control catalogues this time. The quadruple entendre of Solo (i.e. being by yourself; masturbation; feeling “so low”; Han Solo was a rebel), the random musings that includes internalized guilt for the economic status of Congo in Skyline To, and the performative nonchalance in Self Control typifies everything that we were in college: kids with too much undirected and unearned chutzpah, with feelings that may have been inane but still felt real.

Good Guy / Nights / Solo (Reprise) / Pretty Sweet

Every night fucks every day up

After graduation day, we subconsciously attempt to prolong our innocence by trying to obliterate it doing things only “adults” do. We dive into habits and vices and desires with aplomb that is neither a mark of growing up or a refined self-awareness. We embrace “adulting” with an exaggerated zeal that is fooling nobody. The upbeat first part of Nights is supposed to feel like the dawn of this new era. André 3000’s flow in Solo (Reprise) and the noisy whiplash of Pretty Sweet exemplifies this renewed gusto. But once you realize that some relationships are transactional and will never be more than, the beat changes, and the child hiding beneath will secretly crave and yearn for the next heartbreak.

Facebook Story / Close To You

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t devastated

The pointlessness of Facebook Story and its seemingly haphazard placement in the middle of Blonde is a proud declaration that this hyperconnected generation is not unaware of its trite paradoxes. It’s Frank saying “we know, goddammit, but aren’t you sad too?” On the internet, we put up a façade of happiness and nonchalance when we all know how much we truly care. We seek the validation we can get. We obsess over our crushes by fooling ourselves that a like or a post was a deliberate action to let us know they like us back. With all the wonders technology brings us, with every answer available at a click of a button, you still can’t google how to feel.

White Ferrari

It’s just a skull, least that’s what they call it / And we’re free to roam

“How much of my life has happened inside of a car?” Frank writes. What do you do when you’re in transit? Some people read, some people listen to music, but most people just let their mind wander. But what destination is more satisfying than the one we reach in our heads? And where else are we the most honest? It has become cliché to say that regretting one’s past is not a good way to live the present. However, can you blame yourself if at the back of your head you still do? White Ferrari, as much as it sounds ethereal, is the most grounded track in the whole album. For a record that tries to outdo itself by looking for nuance in the most primal, here is where feelings are tackled head on by the simple act of remembering. Sometimes that’s all that you need.

Seigfried / Godspeed

I’ve tried hell (it’s a loop)

If Frank Ocean’s whole career is to be summed up using one song, that song would be Seigfried. Not only is it the zenith of Blonde, but it’s the culmination of everything that Frank’s music stood for. It breaks structure far more than any other song in his catalogue. It wanders plotless, even allowing a verse of spoken word that probably means nothing but you understand anyway because aimlessness is the point. The outro revels in being inconsistent, accepting it not as a tragic fatal flaw but an inevitable part of the human experience. It is essential, not detrimental, to how you create an identity. “I’m not brave!” Frank yells, accepting that it is better to contradict yourself than not have some semblance of progression or growth. And if Seigfried is total surrender, Godspeed is the release. It’s the moment when one realizes that only when you accept the pain can you truly be free.

Futura Free

How far is a light-year? A second.

So how can you escape a seemingly endless cycle of disappointments? Do we ever really grow up from being a child of endless summers? Or come to think of it, do we want to?

In the magazine that accompanied the release of Blonde Frank Ocean writes, “Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.” That shows a level of maturity that can only come from treating every heartbreak not as bane but as nourishment that makes you stronger.

Futura Free, the last song of the record, echoes the technique used in the first track. It starts with a pitched up voice, but instead of sounding like a drunk twenty-something who tries and fails to act like a grown up, it sounds like a child who is ready for what lies ahead. The longing for better days remains, but now with a resignation and calm that maybe all of it and everything that comes after is great as a whole. And the only thing left for you to do is to enjoy it.