“Late to the party” is more than just an expression to me. It’s not just something I say when I get into a band, movie or TV show after everyone else; it’s a lifestyle. For example, I only recently began season one of Orange is the New Black, and I won’t watch Game of Thrones until at least 3 years after it ends. I’ve also never heard Frank Ocean’s critically acclaimed Channel Orange. Sure, I know parts of it through cultural osmosis. I began to listen to it to prepare for what was to be Boys Don’t Cry, but I felt that as little prior knowledge as possible of Ocean’s work would provide me with the most unbiased opinion of Blonde. When I walked into work this morning, I asked a coworker if he listened to the album, when another coworker mentioned that she was disappointed by it. My own listening of Blonde has brought me to one definitive conclusion:
It’s pretty good.
Frank Ocean really makes his testament as an emotional songwriter. This year has seen Kanye, Chance, Drake, Beyoncé and Rihanna stepping up the worlds of rap and R&B, and Ocean fits into that pack. “Godspeed” sounds like it could have been a verse cut from “Ultralight Beams,” with Ocean belting over a warm electric organ and gospel choirs. Andre 3000 spits fire on the glitchy reprise to “Solo,” where the original sees Ocean singing “In hell, there’s heaven,” over a minimal beat. Songs like “Solo” show some of Ocean’s dexterity in mixing personal issues with larger social consequences-“Now your baby mama ain’t so vicious, all she want is her picket fence/and you protest and you picket sign, but them courts won’t side with you.” The closing track has Ocean speaking on his fame in autotune over a simple beat. He speaks about his friends and how people have changed. While I may not have known the music, I did see the hype for this album cycle. Frank Ocean went from a critic’s dream to a genuine superstar in the time since Channel Orange was released. The album closes with an interview over an upbeat, nostalgic beat. It’s an aural flashback to a simpler time.
Blonde’s instrumentals are expansively sparse. The songs build where they should, and the beats never distract when they shouldn’t. The jazzy instrumental on “Pink + White” is a perfect compliment. The guitar work on “Self-Control” cannot be beat as the sound under Ocean singing, “I be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.” It’s sensual, but still only slightly sloppy-so as to only remind you that it’s still a person playing. “White Ferrari” has a certain Bowie-esque quality to the instrumental that makes it sound incredible.
The album’s biggest pitfall is that despite having a number of short tracks, it still feels long. Ocean never picks up the pace save for moments like “Solo (Reprise),” making this a very slow album. It’s a nice listen, but it needs to hit faster. It makes me hesitant to listen to Orange, because I fear another slow album.
The album closes with the distinctive, optimistic question of “How far is a lightyear?” This is a sentiment that seems forced, but in the form of an interview, it really seems genuine. Frank Ocean comes off as possibly the most genuine and authentic songwriter from this era of hip-hop elites, even in his slowness. This didn’t make me feel like I HAD to hear Channel Orange, but I’ll give it a listen. Blonde is a sweet, relaxing bit of music.
James will listen to Channel Orange later. Stay tuned on Twitter.