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The Ecstasy Of Frank Ocean

On Blonde and its devotion to bodies and minds

Frank Ocean cares deeply about cars. He is a collector; in his lexicon, they rank as eccentric. He has used them, and has seen them used, in sensual and unusual ways. When he left New Orleans at 16 to drive to California, as much a refugee of adolescence as the hurricane, he saw people making them into homes, or into coffins, on top of Katrina's flood. "If you could die and come back to life / Up for air from the swimming pool / You'd kneel down to the dry land," he speculates on "Pink + White," the peaceful imagining of disaster-era love that serves as a highlight from his new album, Blonde. In a story recounted in Boys Don't Cry, the limited-edition "zine" that he released at the same time as the album, we find Ocean as a driver, repetitiously guiding one of his many cars to depletion, exhausting it in the middle of nights spent casing the Santa Monica freeway. His lyrics often leave the impression that he's writing from behind a wheel.

Ocean imagines cars as models, too. Boys Don't Cry could be an art-house catalogue for the parade of machines you find in its pages. His interest in the cultural wars of the 1960s is broad — born Christopher Breaux, he later gave himself a very mid-century, cinematic name. That bygone decade's golden age of advertising sold men cars by photographing them as sparkling hunks of hyper-masculinity, an opposite avatar to things like diamonds and forever-blondeness for women. This in the same epoch when gay men openly cruised in those shiny things.

The first time we saw Ocean's queered version of a car was in the artwork to Nostalgia, Ultra, the mixtape he posted on his Tumblr in 2011: a tangerine BMW E30 M3, from the '80s, from his dreams. Ocean's debut as a solo artist unambiguously revealed his glossary of set motifs: transit, whether by car or by drug; emotional numbness tempered with extreme emotional sensitivity; emotionalism in general; physical vanity; teenage melodrama; video games; black wealth and its shadow, black malaise; and loss. These were all clichés of pop culture, but his capacity for visceral songwriting, atypical songcraft, and a feel for stoking a well-controlled haze of personal allure gave them a gleam. With 2012's Channel Orange, Ocean assigned black, psychedelic California, soundtracked by the outer reaches of R&B, to contain all his principal themes.

Blonde speaks in the same references as these earlier works — Los Angeles pulp, open sexuality, the eternal, beautiful, textured, satirical battle of achieving romantic fitness in a slew of corrupted relationships. Ocean adores men and women on this album, is masculine (blond) and feminine (blonde). He's nude, and covered in the trappings of money. He's the boyfriend and the sidepiece, always lurid. What isn't obscured is his pop perfectionism, apparent in one secret way: At almost precisely 60 minutes, Blonde achieves a platonic ideal of temporal length. Some of pop's biggest actors — André 3000, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams, Beyoncé — form part of Ocean's cadre, but with the exception of André's piercing, heretical speech on "Solo (Reprise)," their presence is more of an ether to be sensed than a verse to be explicitly heard.

Ocean's long-awaited third major work is notably unbordered. This is true logistically — the album must be bought whole, not by song, from Apple — but also creatively, in the way its blurred, impressionistic instrumentals terminate tracks, making them feel purposefully incomplete. Endless, the 140-hour art-and-music performance piece that found Ocean building a staircase that led nowhere, set the tone. Four years created a prodigiously well-articulated mood, though the mood never ends, not while listening, and not after it's over. Blond is an exercise in perspectives taken all the way to a gorgeous, foggy absurdism — the enduring clarity being that Ocean is addicted to thinking about thinking, to ruminating on the act of rumination. The tempos are mid-level, barely percussive, but the album has a deeply kinetic brain, wired with beach rock, hip-hop, muted soul, and just plain speech. On Blonde, Ocean retreads the backroads of memory and the impossibility of connecting to people who are now ghosts, but he is increasingly fascinated with the mechanism of memory itself, its inadequacy. He longs to understand the materials that memory chooses to make its vehicles and the ways those vehicles can be compromised.

Directed by fashion photographer Tyrone Lebon, the video for Blonde's album opener, "Nikes," poses Ocean by another one of his cars, the singer hoodied and glittered and disoriented, looking every bit the couture icon, as parties and long naked bodies swirl around him. He's a jilted lover, a dreary Little Richard, remembering the feeling of being desired. The hoodie is a morning-after outfit, a high fashion object asexualized by brands like Vetements, and the garment Trayvon wore when he was killed. Endlessly referential, the video feels organic, still.

Visually, the video confers an impeccable translation of the song's mellowed production, by Ocean himself — vocals pitched up to alien, and a prodding, distended flow. "Nikes" shows Ocean clearly approximating the bleary indecision of chemical trips. "We're not in love / But I'll make love to you," he sings toward the end of the song. The hostile, desperate contours of altered states come up on Blonde, often in starkly religious terms. "Noses on a rail / A little virgin wears the white," he sings on "Self Control," a song about a lack thereof; "Your dilated eyes watch the clouds float," he offers on "White Ferrari," the James Blake–assisted rock fantasy of life as kindly, upper-middle-class barons. Ocean seems drawn to psychedelia because of its power to provide novel filters through which to see the same old things — heartbreak, sexual dissatisfaction, personal ambition.

Songwriting is perhaps the densest filter on Blonde. Ocean became a writer on Tumblr; since Nostalgia, Ultra, he's loved the equally crude and esoteric language of internet communication, transferring it to the space of lyrics. He writes soaring lines about nirvana, and then describes the way his "nuts hang," beautifully. Ocean reinvests the word nigga with its hip-hop virtue, using it to effect intimacy when he's lonely and hostility when he's alone. At the level of syntax, Ocean employs an essayist's tricks to pack in textural sound. On "Ivy," the misty song about his Odd Future days, which has been dressed with dusky, soft guitar sometime in the three years after he performed it in Munich, he's deft with internal rhyme: "Safe in my rental like an armored truck back then / We didn't give a fuck back then." As preternaturally good as he is at constructing vaporous sensuality, Ocean can also bundle simple words to provide the canniest pictures of average teenage life. He's only gotten better at it as he's gotten older. The short "Pretty Sweet," which may be the album's most challenging track — strongly angular, hanging on dissonant strings and Ocean's strained voice — ends with a pearlescent children's choir singing a pretty wiry stoner's slogan: "We know you're sweet like a sucka / Pretty sweet / Pretty sweet." The most astonishing example of this trick is on Blonde's median track, the tri-partite stunner "Nights." Like Channel Orange's "Pyramids," the song is about nocturnal activities, though there are fewer metaphors, and the maximalism is dialed down. He uses a thick mix of stuffy written language, Creole, and Black English on one key lyric: "Although you got beaucoup family / You don't even got nobody being honest with you." It's a line to be savored and turned around like a candy.

Ocean's voice provides heft, too, and lightness and humor and intensity. Earl Sweatshirt, the bard of Odd Future, once firmly bragged that Ocean was a better rapper than him. Blonde boasts Ocean as nearly every kind of vocalist. He's full-throated, emphatic on the first third of "Solo," only to lapse into a dauntless emcee in the middle. "Nikes" and "Pretty Sweet" have his voice playfully distorted, and on "Pink + White" he rings as pure as his harmonizer, Beyoncé. Ocean's dextrous vocals are great convoys for the genre work on Blonde. To call this album R&B — an album that quotes Elliott Smith right after sampling Stevie Wonder, that has production from Arca and from Pharrell, that owes to Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix, in equal turn — is to resituate an unnecessarily harangued-over genre back within the diversity it always housed. R&B is big, and it holds Ocean's multitudes.

For all Blonde's haze, stewards of sobriety offer two of its most exhilarating and baffling moments, ones that make you wonder. The first is "Be Yourself," a PSA voicemail from a woman who may be Ocean's mother. "Don't try to be someone else," she says, before warning her son of the potency of drugs like marijuana, the way alcohol can impair driving. André 3000's majestic evangelizing over the stilted jazz of "Solo (reprise)" is the other. Ocean's solo "Solo" is a luxurious, mildly soulful dreamer about self-love and the glory of bulls and matadors in celestial duels; André's verse on the reprise is earthen, convinces you of the supremacy of his artistic and ethical way. Ocean is a man regulated by sensations, not righteousness. ("I'd do anything for you / (In the dark)," he implores on the miraculously searching "Siegfried.") And yet the preaching oddly fits in an album serious about universalism, even when it hurts or feels pedantic. Blonde bows to the verité of emotional impulse.

Devoted to the contours of bodies and of minds, it is a masterpiece of honest eroticism. Four years of what looked like creative dormancy birthed an Ocean as exhibitionist as we've ever seen him. He is sea-green, black, and naked on the album cover. In the music, he is, somehow, more denuded. Even his cars are aging like sensitive human bodies. The Bugatti leaves "some stretch marks on the freeway," he sings on "Futura Free," the closer that isn't a finale, not really. The ride never ends, even if the machine itself may have to break down.


VMAs 2017