On Saturday night, as Frank Ocean’s Blonde (or was that Blond?) arrived in the world, the MTV News bat signal drew us all to this critics’ roundtable. Sasha Geffen, Hazel Cills, David Turner, Charles Aaron, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Molly Lambert, Doreen St. Félix, and Ira Madison III contributed their first impressions of one of the year’s most eagerly awaited works of art.
Aaron: Capitalist techspeak prophecy-fulfillment has repeatedly declared the album a relic, a fossil form. And in its commercially constructed template, it is; today’s best full-lengths are a hybrid of mixtape drift and artistic meditation, released whenever the hell. The result is that our major artists — virtually all of them African-American — are creating full-length albums that recall nothing less than ’60s/’70s auteur films, speaking in discrete, fresh idioms. They’re unveiling artistic upside-downs that lure you in, yet are so mesmerizing that you want to stay the night. Profound and in-progress, perplexing and luxuriant, not in the least bit disposable, they lift us above the grimy everyday grabass and send us floating to a cosmos that’s less ugly and petty and exploitative, where it’s all a rush of feelings gradually taking shape as melodies and rhythms and smatterings of found and lost sounds. That’s Blonde. The specifics are for each of us to discover — probably in private, with a nug and mom on voicemail.
Cills: Three years ago, Frank Ocean said that he was listening to The Beach Boys for inspiration, but I’m still surprised to hear those influences on Blonde and Endless. There’s a dreamy, introspective summertime sadness that blankets Blonde in particular, and now I’m thankful Frank released the record when he did, in mid-August. It’s the record you put on at the end of the party as people are drifting out the door. It’s so chilly and downtempo. When I saw that heavy list of contributors on Twitter, I expected something like The Life of Pablo or Coloring Book — chock-full of voices and diverse production — but it’s surprisingly not like that? Blonde has such a distinct, unifying sound, all watery keyboards and distorted guitars, and while there are dips into genre (the soul of “Pink + White,” the trip-hop-y “Close to You”), the record almost plays like one whole track. I don’t know if I can pinpoint favorite songs just yet, but I have favorite moments: the children’s choir at the end of “Pretty Sweet,” that gorgeous ’70s synth arrangement at the end of “Skyline To,” the line on “Self Control” where Frank sings, “I came to visit ’cause you see me like a UFO.” It’s gorgeous.
Vozick-Levinson: Totally — how cool is it that he got both Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar on the record, only to use them for little flickers of backing vocals that vanish before they’ve fully registered? Those moments make it feel like all of pop in 2016 is contained somewhere off on the margins of Frank Ocean’s mind.
Turner: Moments! I love some of these songs — “Solo” immediately comes to mind — but even more than that, there are so many small moments I wish I could make my new home. It’s his mother calling to lovingly scold him on “Be Yourself,” the drums on the chorus on “Nights,” even the closing question of “How far is a light-year?” Wait! It's also André 3000’s verse! And James Blake's words on “White Ferrari”! This is all too much. I guess this is what happens when artists pull generations’ worth of talent for single projects and expect us to absorb it all. I mean, I can’t, really — my heart’s still racing just from Frank singing “Everyday shit / Every night shit” on “Nights,” and I can barely contain why. I only need to find a mirror to see why I’m lost for words at this moment. How far is a light-year?
Geffen: I don’t know if I’ve ever had a listening experience quite like Blonde and its meditative warm-up, Endless. When I’m actually listening to each record, I’m most gripped by Ocean’s vocal moments: the way he strains his voice on “Ivy,” the repetition on “Comme Des Garçons.” When I step away from the music, what sticks is the negative space: the revolving synth riff on “Be Yourself” and “Futura Free,” the interstitial ambient moments beneath the power saws. These are dreams whose most powerful, salient moments fade upon waking, leaving you with the memory of peripheral but strangely compelling details. From the first snippets that surfaced on the Endless stream, I liked how Ocean was playing with attention, letting that long-awaited music float through a virtual space with no announcement, no buildup. He’s diverting hype instead of playing to it, seeing what other kinds of heightened emotional states he can inspire beyond hype and its satisfaction. For me, it’s hypnagogia, reflection, sanctuary — all antithetical to the model of the contemporary pop star and all, I think, needed right now in the collective psyche.
Vozick-Levinson: After listening to Blond(e) a dozen or so times this weekend, I’m finding myself drawn to the quality that Charles mentions — that aura of incompleteness that glimmers around the edges of the finished product. I hear it in the way “Solo” is split into two halves that don’t quite fit together, and in the way that “Ivy” sounds like an intimate demo for a thunderous power ballad, which makes it feel so much more real than if it were blown out with stacked chords and cymbal crashes. Sasha wrote last week about how Frank Ocean has been foregrounding the invisible creative labor behind his work, and that’s definitely part of what’s going on. The other part is that these are memory songs, and Frank is presenting them to us in ways that mimic the subjective experience of wrestling with old, unresolved emotions. As on Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange, it’s often hard to be sure when the stories he tells on Blond(e) are meant to be taking place — they all seem to float in a hazy, indeterminate middle distance. “Did you call me from a séance? / You are from a past life,” he says to an ex (or maybe just a former friend) on “Nights.” There are ghosts like that swirling all through this album, restless and unsatisfied, demanding attention from the here and now.
Lambert: I’ll be honest — this album has me kind of lost for words. And I’m stoked, because it’s been a minute since anything knocked me over with a feather like my first listen of Blonde. Frank channels the back-to-school season rush of feelings into an audio-sensory autumn bonfire of summer memories. It’s an album of September songs about getting older and trying your hardest to be wiser — cue André 3000 reflecting “I am no rookie but feel like a kid.” When I have coherent thoughts about Blonde (besides slack-jawed awe) they’re mostly about the signposts Ocean left in the margins. The debate over whether Blonde is a reference to Blonde on Blonde ties in with this album's textual denseness — it’s easy to imagine Dylanologists for Frank Ocean (Oceanographers?) dissecting and arguing the meaning of the lyrics and themes for decades to come. The “Here, There and Everywhere” interpolation in “White Ferrari” connected Blonde and The Beatles’ Revolver in my head via an endless tape loop — the formal experimentalism that aims sky-high and hits right in the Pleiades. The Elliott Smith riff on “Seigfried” fits into the whispered intimacy of Blonde’s rooms. It’s a sensual world, from his mom’s voice on a phone message, the smell of weed smoke in a hotel room, or the feeling of time slipping away from you faster each year. For me, Blonde brought up thoughts of Prince’s Paisley Underground years, Yo La Tengo, Allen Toussaint, and the smell of the first time it rains in the fall. Frank’s invocation of Stevie Wonder’s talkbox flip of The Carpenters’ version of Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You” points to the strength they all share — tenderness. Underneath Frank’s loneliness there is always a warmth. Blonde is the acid album made for a good, thoughtful solo trip. It’s clear now that Frank, just like the French fries, had a plan.
Aaron: Sasha alludes to this in an interesting way, but I’m curious whether Frank’s so-called disappearance from public life and reclusive recording of the album, plus all the release dates, had an impact on how any of you heard the album?
St. Félix: I don’t mean for this to sound contrarian or fake, but the wait never bothered me. Nor did Ocean seem to disappear, so much as settle into himself. Four years isn’t so long. He was still out in the public, just not in the way people wanted him to be. This is also when the former Christopher Breaux legally changed his name to Frank Ocean, his idea of how a stage name and an identity should melt into each other. This is also when he dyed his hair sea-green. I liked that he didn’t seem to care along the frequency people wanted him to. So the stakes for me weren’t “this better justify years of ‘silence’” — more, “I want to know what was in your head during that time.” And to be honest, Endless, Blonde, and the zine I can’t wait to read are flooring me before I’ve even had a chance to fully incorporate them into my sense of Ocean’s ascendant perfectionism, or the way his taste for global listening shows shades of early Stevie Wonder.
Madison III: A Portrait of the Artist As a Recluse. Frank can’t even be bothered to look at us on his album cover. He’s done no major interviews for the project, and yet, still, he changed the game with that digital drop. His work speaks for itself. There was a lot of attention around Channel Orange, which didn’t fully resonate with me. I liked the bombastic, more experimental Frank of Nostalgia, Ultra; his last album seemed designed to appeal to the music writer fans he garnered from that mixtape. This album already feels more personal, more complex. He’s singing about himself. Last time he sang about women on the verge in “Pyramids,” he sang about white privilege in “Super Rich Kids.” But Blonde is all about Frank. It’s deeply personal, and, as a result, I feel his soul more than I ever have before.