Before it was recognized as a sprawling masterpiece, Frank Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE was pigeonholed as an overhyped album about coming out of the closet. Prompted by a tumblr note published the week of the album release, that reaction had little to do with the music. The album itself was more concerned with rich dimensions of love, loss and longing than rote sexuality, but Ocean’s sexuality utterly dominated how people talked about the album. It certainly wasn’t a PR disaster—the album eventually went platinum—but for Frank, it had to be maddening: somehow a tiny blog post, an aside, really, eclipsed the grand vision that the post was meant to enrich. It was if he had built a bridge to an island entirely of his own design and all people talked about was the bridge’s suspension cables.
Ocean has mostly existed in suspended animation in the interim between channel ORANGE and Blonde, leaving his fortress of solitude for the occasional feature or broadcasting his thoughts from within its dungeons via oblique tumblr dispatches. His absence from public life has been so absolute that it has spawned memes, conspiracy theories and fan fiction about him being seen IRL. Blonde is just as evasive—Ocean obscures his face on the album cover—but it’s his most resonant work yet, constantly pushing past profound alienation to connect, however fleetingly, to something, someone.
Throughout the album, Ocean flits in and out of memories and relationships, replacing the set pieces of channel ORANGE with slipstream vignettes. “Nights” drunkenly stumbles from a choppy phone conversation with a former lover into a sullen midnight stroll and then a sober recollection of Ocean’s life after Hurricane Katrina. “Signal going in and out,” Ocean sings, unsure of where or when he is. “Pink + White” juxtaposes escaping from floodwaters with recovering from heartbreak, never firmly establishing which one is the metaphor. On channel ORANGE the thrill of the grandiose “Pyramids” was how the song connected past and present through shared names and symbols. On Blonde past and present are nonexistent: time is blurred into oblivion, everything happening at once.
Genre is also a blur. channel ORANGE may have been eclectic, but it was clearly an R&B record. Blonde is thoroughly radioactive, always unstable. Surf rock transforms into new wave that morphs into electrosoul that evaporates into vaporwave. The only thing stabilizing this chaos is a folk sensibility: a persistent emphasis on the power of the voice. Throughout, Ocean’s voice is pure fluid: it compresses, expands, dilutes and stretches. The opening vocals on “Nikes” flow like a jetstream, compacted and shrill. “Good Guy” sounds like a glitchy Skype call, Ocean’s voice barely breaking through. “Ivy” and “Seigfried,” his best performances to date, somehow topping “Bad Religion,” are just plain sterling. “I’m not brave!” he shouts on the latter, reluctant to be an icon. It’s as if Ocean is so determined to not be defined that he extends in all directions at once, his voice his only lifeline.
There’s an acute loneliness at the heart of all these vocal tweaks and flighty exploits. When Ocean opens the album with “These bitches want Nikes/They looking for a check/Tell ‘em it ain’t likely,” a heavy disappointment slips through that steely coldness. On “Solo” Ocean extols the virtues of solitude, but never sounds convinced. “It’s just me and no you/Stayed up ‘til my phone died, smoking good, rolling solo,” he sings vacantly in the final verse, admitting his ambivalence about being alone. Even “Godspeed,” a powerful elegy about finally letting a lost love go, can’t fully commit to the solitary life. “The table is prepared for you,” Ocean croons, leaving the door ajar.
What makes this loneliness so powerful is Ocean’s dogged refusal to embrace it. “I’d rather live outside,” he screams on “Seigfried,” determined to find a way to reconcile his alienation from his peers with his need to belong. It’s such an ordinary concern, but Ocean elevates it to cosmic heights. And refreshingly, it’s not dramatic, a trait of the album as a whole. For Ocean, loneliness and its various antidotes—drugs, women, men, nostalgia—aren’t some destructive cycle: they’re just life unfolding. The only thing he regrets is how quickly it all unravels. “Menage on my birthday, tap out on the first stroke,” he deadpans on “Free Futura.”
Blonde puts the future of Frank Ocean fan fiction in question. This whole time we’ve been imagining a man in exile, but it turns out he’s been floating among us, falling in and out of love and losing track of time. channel ORANGE was never his coming out, and Blonde isn’t a glimpse into his secret life as Liberace. Beautifully more simple than any of our mythmaking delusions, Blonde is Ocean’s life as he experiences it: fluid and fluctuating, one man in motion. This is what freedom sounds like.