Through Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat and crappily shot concert footage, it’s natural to feel like you have an idea of who an artist is without knowing them at all. Rihanna could send you away with a withering look, or offer some good weed; Adele would say >“fank you” a few times; Kanye might talk about Apple, or Balenciaga; Beyoncé would be Beyoncé; and so forth. But Frank Ocean slips out of my mind, when I try to picture him. Maybe he’d want to talk about cars or art, but I don’t know. It’s easier to see him slipping out of a room than sticking around for whatever it is people wanted.
In 2016, listeners wanted a lot from Frank Ocean. They wanted him to rewind the clock to July 2015, when the release of his second studio album—then called Boys Don’t Cry, we thought—was imminent, and actually follow through. They wanted him to drop the post-R&B, post-sexuality, post-everything conceptual smorgasbord to save us from the fuckboyism of Chris Brown. They wanted him >to rescue print journalism, maybe. But as the months wore on with no word from Ocean, not even an excuse, they got mad. Who was Ocean to tease something extraordinary, then perform the ghost of the century? Who was this public artist to remain so private?
Like Bon Iver and Radiohead, Ocean chose to mostly disappear in a moment where modern media demands we chronicle everything, share all parts of ourselves. But there is radical tenderness in >Blonde’s restrained R&B, unadorned emotion flowing freely through uncategorizable moods and stunning melodic landscapes. Drawing inspiration and samples from cross-generational music icons like David Bowie, the Beatles, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar, it laid him emotionally bare, yet shrouded in the same fog of mystery. There were denuded guitars aplenty and glimpses of biography—scant references to his early days as an Odd Future hanger-on, wandering around post-Katrina New Orleans, wistful remembrances of budding relationships, a chiding reprimand against using marijuana from his friend’s mother—but his perspective floated among the years, unmoored from the present. The songs unspooled multiple times before ending, meticulously constructed and breathtakingly casual within the same moment.
No album seemed so easy, despite how much Ocean seemed to tinker with the record to make it perfect, or how painful his experiences might’ve been. “I’m not brave,” he barks toward the beginning of “Seigfried,” a shocking disclosure considering how much he was revealing. You know the old cliché of artists saying their life is like a movie? This was Ocean’s world as Sans Soleil—an elusive, colorful collage of images and sounds, a spectrum of experiences to live within. Blonde allows us to dive into a life made purposefully obscure. “We’re not telling the stories to ourselves,” he told the New York Times of his approach to memory. “We know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.” I come back to the staircase he built in the audio-visual experiment Endless, completed over the course of many hours. Again, listeners wanted an explanation when Ocean would provide none. Ultimately, it didn’t seem that complicated. He had some tools, he did the work, and he constructed the path to get to where he wanted to go, even if it remained out of sight. — JEREMY GORDON