Four years ago Frank Ocean dropped channel ORANGE, an album that capitalised on the whole PBR&B movement; spitting in the face of the predominant style of R&B (little more than pop songs) and instead putting forth tracks that had a greater depth than their contemporaries. Exchanging 4 minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus formulae for extended passages that would shift and alternate in entirely different directions, the style pushed by the likes of Ocean, Tesfaye and Graham had just as much in common with progressive rock bands as it did Usher and R. Kelly.
channel ORANGE was driven by its fairly unique lead single Pyramids; a 10 minute jam that split into two parts, the first being a more standardised poppy track before blending into a reflective piece that incorporated spoken word vocals and a generally slowed pace to reshape the entire track. Pyramids was often compared to House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls, but where The Weeknd’s track quite openly acknowledged its existence as two separate tracks loosely connected by a theme, Pyramids existed as a singular entity that encapsulated an entire thematic motif within itself. Pyramids wasn’t the only thing great about Channel Orange, but it does function well as a statement for the album as a whole.
Fast forward four years and finally after numerous delays Ocean dropped blond, previously titled Boys Don’t Cry. Was it worth the wait? Yeah, I’d say so, blond is similar in tone to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly; opening up a darker, melancholic side of Frank Ocean that had been touched on previously with tracks like Super Rich Kids, but embracing that dark style to a new degree. It’s not uncommon in hip hop for the follow up to a successful release to bend toward a darker more experimental style; and blond is no exception. Ocean’s work has always focused on expert craftsmanship with a heavy focus on aural texture and this is no exception, that being said blond has little in the way of hooks that will immediately draw in the listener, relying more on a pattern of repeated listens to help familiarise audiences with Ocean’s message.
This doesn’t mean the album isn’t “catchy” (whatever that actually means), it simply means that if you were expecting those immediately recognisable synth blasts from the opening of Pyramids, or the easily digestable structure of Thinkin’ Bout You that you’re going to be a little disappointed. Despite this blond still features some of the best work of Ocean’s career; album opener Nike’s is a poignant introduction to the album gliding on almost trap-like tones while Ocean’s voice is filtered through a series of effects that seem to rob him of all humanity only for his natural voice to slowly move back into play as the track progresses ending with Ocean’s unedited vocals dominating the track as it climaxes. Pink + White is easily the most accessible track on the album combining a bouncy acoustic guitar with lush keyboard work that switches between synth-strings and arpeggios, while Ocean drops solid vocal lines over the instrumentals, occasionally backed by a choir.
The album highlight is of course White Ferrari, a track that takes blond to its emotional peak with Ocean’s lyrics reaching the end of his personal journey, accompanied by James Blake. Also of note is album closer Futura Free, a slow burning track that works incredibly well as a summation of the themes covered within the album. Transitioning through a range of styles within the first five minutes before dropping into absolute silence and closing with low-fi recording samples. So the final question is; does blond reach the heights of channel ORANGE? Nah, but while it mightn’t top the peaks of its predecessor it also never hits the lows that channel ORANGE hit. Instead blond is able to hit a strong stride right out of the gate and maintain that quality throughout its 17 track duration. Definitely check this one out.