There comes a point in any great sexual relationship that we all know but never really care to admit. There’s the anticipation, the thrill, the teases, the first moments consummating some crackling chemistry. And then, sometimes… sometimes it just keeps going. To the point that you’re sort of looking around the room (or around a town square, we’re not ones to judge) for a clock to hint ‘for fuck’s sake just spaff already or pull the fuck out’.
Of course, in this laboured metaphor we’re hinting towards Frank Ocean and Blonde (or Blond, clearly the magazine and related paraphernalia were all printed before this ridiculous back-and-forth). With his blueprint ‘visual album’ Endless – a gamble that’s still rich sonically but sort of didn’t really achieve anything in terms of artistry or mystique – it almost felt like he was having a bit of a laugh at our expense.
And then a Blonde comes along, a creamy and voluminous load from Ocean that forgives a lot of his transgressions and is worth swallowing. But some clarification: Firstly, Ocean isn’t the LGBTQ hero people have been projecting their hopes on, certainly not in this album. It’s autobiographical to a fault but doesn’t aim to address issues like his tumblr; funnily enough there’s another more overt queer space in The Internet (also Odd Future expatriates) that still gets overlooked in his favour.
Secondly, like his collaborator Beyoncé, the political references are also kept to a minimum when it comes to actually selling records. Sure, there’s a reference to Trayvon Martin on Nikes, but for a forward-thinker like Ocean there’s a distinct lack of urgent commentary (instead a disappointingly cliché interlude called Be Yourself). It becomes somewhat clearer in reading Ocean’s companion letter in the Boys Don’t Cry magazine. It’s a monologue that has Ocean name-dropping celebrities and, completely bereft of self-awareness, going on about his fancy cars or hopping over to exotic destinations and taking magic mushrooms in a very overgrown-rich-kid kinda way.
So Saint Frank does have his flaws – but so does any great auteur and there’s no denying that, even amid all the endless talk of sex and drugs, Ocean is just that. He falls prey to indulgence, he rambles on, but by the Christ isn’t it a dream to behold at times. From the moment Ivy hits, that voice wraps around like a rolling vapour filling the room – light enough to enjoy, visible enough to make an impact. It gives way to a breathtaking moment of modern R&B ambrosia: Pink + White, a jam that still lingers long after the album’s over. It takes a special talent to use a voice like Beyoncé in the most sparse but complementary way, her harmonising wispy and celestial in the background like an ascent to the two-tone sky of its title.
But for every moment like that, we have to suffer one of Ocean’s flighty detours. For that thrilling drop on Pretty Sweet, we endure the FourFiveSeconds-esque porch-noodling of Self Control. For the emotional wallop of Godspeed, we sit through the dichotomous (and monotonous) Nights. For the soul-baring of Siegfried – a genuine lump-in-throat moment of existential angst – there’s the ramshackle rambling of Skyline To. It’s not that these songs don’t have lines or notes of brilliance, of course, but there’s certainly a lot to be said for a more judicious track listing.
Is Blonde the masterpiece we were all expecting? No, but it’s just Frank Ocean doing Frank Ocean, as is his wont, and as will always be. There’s also no denying that this record is an exceptional piece of work from an important voice, and a worthy addition to the canon. But in one revelation on album closer Futura Free, the whole thing takes a rather sinister shade: “Jay hit me on the email,” he says, referring of course to Jay-Z, “Said I oughta act my net worth/ Dog this is chess now.” With that it’s hard to ignore – for better or worse – how much of this feels calculated, stories and emotion placed with clinical precision. This is his beautiful game, and Frank Ocean just played the fuck out of it.