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/r/Popheads Album of the Decade #25: Frank Ocean - Blonde
listen: Spotify, Apple Music
But before this moment, so much happened, a story that’s almost as interesting as the album itself.
tyler slept on my sofa, yeah
To those heathens unfamiliar with Frank Ocean, I gotchu. Born Christopher Breaux and raised in New Orleans, Frank moved to Los Angeles at age 19 to pursue a career as a musician. Before his breakthrough as a vocalist, he got work as a songwriter, getting credits on tracks by a prepubescent Justin Bieber (“Bigger”) and John Legend (“Quickly” featuring Brandy). Despite working with two current A-listers, Frank’s come-up would come through a group of edgy teenagers making goofy rap music. He became an early member of the unexpectedly influential Odd Future collective, and along with Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, and Syd, would become one of its most prominent members. Frank’s debut mixtape, 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, would fully break him through as a solo artist, and by the end of the year he got to write a song for Beyoncé (“I Miss You”) and feature twice on the Kanye West/Jay-Z collab album Watch the Throne. Nostalgia, Ultra was recorded in defiance of a middling relationship with his label Def Jam, and saw him recording over the instrumentals of a variety of different songs, such as “Electric Feel” by MGMT, “Strawberry Swing” by Coldplay, and “Optimistic” by Radiohead. This would later get Frank into legal trouble, as the Eagles would take offense with his use of the “Hotel California” backing track on “American Wedding”, and threatened to sue Frank despite the song being on a free mixtape. The controversy would not stop Frank’s rising star, as he would continue to record music, both solo and with Odd Future, such as the fan-favorite Tyler collab “She”. But things were about to get a lot bigger, and a lot more… orange.
spending each day of the year
If you’re vaguely familiar with Frank Ocean or Blonde, you’re probably aware of the memetic status of the long wait for the album. While there’s been far bigger gaps between releases and other similarly complained-about hiatuses (just look at the replies to literally anything Rihanna posts), people were unbelievably hyped for whatever Frank was doing next. Why? Well, channel ORANGE. Frank’s highly anticipated and overwhelmingly acclaimed debut album was released in mid-summer 2012, a week earlier than its announced date to avoid a possible leak. It was an album everyone deserved to experience together, a perfect summation of everything that Frank had done to that point. People fell in love with Frank’s abstract, idiosyncratic lyrics and song structures, the warm production, and a great list of collaborators from his Odd Future partners Tyler and Earl Sweatshirt to Pharrell, Andre 3000, and John Mayer. Frank had treaded new ground all through his career to this point, but he was about to jump forward in a whole different way.
Right before the release of channel ORANGE, Frank posted a letter, originally intended for the liner notes of the album, on his Tumblr. It discussed his falling in love with a man who continued to influence Frank, firmly establishing him as being one of the first and most prominent openly LGBTQ+ artists in the hip hop industry. He recieved widespread support for his announcement from the wider music community, with the notable exception of Chris Brown, who jumped Frank outside a studio in early 2013. Brown, who punched Frank in the face and whose entourage called him a faggot, would attend the Grammys weeks later and refuse to stand with the crowd when Frank won the award for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Why is this part relevant? It isn’t really, but fuck Chris Brown.
we’ll let you guys prophesy
As early as February 2013, Frank was talking about his follow-up to channel ORANGE. In an interview with BBC’s Zane Lowe, he said he was “10, 11” songs into his next album, and was working with Pharrell, Tyler, and Danger Mouse. 2 months later, he would cite the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Stevie Wonder (two of whom he would sample on the final album) as inspirations. In June, he would play several new songs at a rare live set in Munich, which included early versions of future Blonde cuts “Seigfried” and “Ivy”. This would be the last taste of anything new for a while, and the mystery of where Frank was and what he was working on increasingly grew as the years passed. In April 2014, he would post on Tumblr that the album was almost done, but seven more months would pass before anyone would be blessed with new Frank. Rather than an album announcement or new single, it was a lo-fi demo of a song that would not make the final album, “Memrise”. In January 2015, he would post a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)” as a tribute to Aaliyah, who had done a well-known cover of the song. 2015, however, would become infamous for something different.
On April 6th, 2015, Frank posted on his Tumblr to finally announce the upcoming album alongside a curated magazine releasing in July. Through a misleading caption, the album would be regarded as Boys Don’t Cry up until the final release despite it being the name of the magazine. Hype would go into overdrive, and despite a lack of future announcements from Frank, fans would scavenge anything possible to find details. A picture of Frank on the set of a rumored music video leaked, and people would later find the song title “Nikes” in the director’s resume. This would later be (correctly) connected to a vague Chance the Rapper tweet from July, which he would actually post again closer to the final release. A mysterious empty playlist named states appeared on Frank’s SoundCloud in May, which caused a flurry of speculation for a while but ultimately led to absolutely nothing. Speaking of nothing, July 2015 would come and go, then August, then September, then 2015 itself. In late November, produceDJ A-Trak posted a tweet hinting at a mysterious upcoming song called “White Ferrari” releasing in several weeks. Frank fans jumped on it, with the evidence being: a) an old Tumblr post where you can see what looks like ‘rari’ written on a chalkboard next to Frank, and b) it’s the most Frank Ocean song title you can come up with. Again, this would turn out to be completely correct minus rumors that Playboi Carti was on the song.
2016 now. Frank would stay quiet for even longer, but fans would get a taste with a short feature on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo. Much of early 2016 was Frank occasionally emerging from the shadows, usually doing things that weren’t music like modeling for Calvin Klein. Finally, in July 2016, a self-deprecating post emerged on Frank’s website, acknowleding the many delays and announcing the album would be released in July. It wasn’t. As the final minutes of July ticked away and fans were losing all hope, suddenly, a mysterious livestream began on the website. It showed a black and white image of a warehouse. The New York Times reported the album and magazine would be out on August 5th. This was it. Or was it?
People were so desperate for new Frank Ocean music that they watched him woodwork for weeks. Every so often, he would walk on camera and build… something. Clips of music would play, but they were often ambient loops or snippets of instrumentals. Well into the project, with the August 5th date having passed, there was a period of weeks with no new progress or appearances from Frank on the stream, leading impatient fans to search for the location of the warehouse. It would actually be found by Redditors as an event space in Brooklyn, but as the stream was pre-recorded, it wasn’t much help. Finally, on August 19th, Frank returned and finished the staircase, walking to the top and back down, completing the stream. Immediately after, a visual album called Endless dropped on Apple Music. Fans reacted with confusion and disappointment, believing that they had waited four years for something they could only play in one long sitting. However, there was a quick clarification that Endless was different from what people were still calling Boys Don’t Cry. The next morning, the “Nikes” video released on Apple Music, over a year after it was filmed. Things progressed incredibly quickly from there, as pop-up shops were announced for later that day, and it was discovered that copies of the long-teased magazine contained the even-longer-teased album. Fans wouldn’t have to wait for those to get online, however, as the album itself finally, FINALLY dropped on Apple Music at around 5:00 PM EST. That album is Blonde.
It's pretty clear that Frank wanted "Nikes" to be everyone's introduction Blonde. It was released as a single/music video, the only one from the era, and it's also the first song on the album. "Nikes" is a bold choice for a lead single, a subversion of expectations for anyone coming in expecting a "Thinkin Bout You" or "Swim Good" type track. Over a melancholic, dark, almost ambient beat (and some of the only drums you'll hear on this album), Frank touches on a variety of topics, ranging from materialism to drugs to modern relationship dynamics to a shoutout to Trayvon Martin. Most notably, Frank's voice is pitched up for a majority of the song, almost building up the suspense on this long-awaited album for when the effect will drop. That moment comes almost exactly three minutes in, with Frank's natural voice coming through with the very self-aware line "we'll let you guys prophesy", which feels like a clear acknowledgement of the years of speculation leading to this moment. The final bridge of the album version (the alternate magazine version features a verse from Japanese rapper KOHH) is heartbreaking, describing a relationship where Frank's partner is making love with him despite them not being in love and the partner still not being over their previous relationship. Themes of relationship drama and love in the modern age permeate throughout the album, along with being regular songwriting topics of Frank's.
Of course, I can't discuss "Nikes" without talking about the video. Directed by Tyrone Lebon, a London based photographer and filmmaker, the music video features a barrage of different subjects, locations, and abstract imagery with occasional appearances from Frank and a cameo from A$AP Rocky. Lebon, himself an accomplished fashion photographer who has worked with Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, and, yes, Nike, creates these beautiful dreamlike scenes, some of which only appear for brief moments. There is a nude woman swimming in a glass tank of water, hazy scenes of people at a club party, a man on fire, the devil dancing, and at one point, a talking dog. Some shots in the video even reference other media, with the most obvious being this shot of a nude figure in a pile of money, which seems like an obvious analogue to the famous rose petal scene from American Beauty. However, more interesting to me is this shot, which references the infamous Heaven's Gate cult, who committed mass suicide in March 1997 in conjunction with the Hale-Bopp comet, which they believed would bring a spacecraft that would take their souls to another world. The cult members had covered their (TW: non-graphic photo of body) upper bodies with a shroud and worn identical pairs of Nike Decades, an image Frank and Lebon recreated for the video. Considering the songs critiques of materialism and wanting specific brands as a status symbol, you can definitely interpret the shot as a statement calling this type of behavior cult-like. The crushing weight of capitalism sends people in all sorts of weird directions in a search for deeper meaning, some find it in buying expensive shoes made by slave labor, some are exploited by the allure of cults like Heaven's Gate. Interestingly enough, the cult would find itself intertwined with the world of hip hop again two years later when Frank collaborator Lil Uzi Vert referenced them on the cover to his still-unreleased album Eternal Atake. Bizarrely, this lead to Uzi being threatened with legal action by the surviving members of a suicide cult.
we'll never be those kids again
I've touched on Frank's use of pitch-shifting on "Nikes", but it's far from limited to one song. As touched on in this amazing Left at London video, Frank has something of a reputation for playing with pitch alot in his music. On Blonde, the effect can be used to convey a variety of things, which differ based on which song you're listening to. To me, Frank's pitched up vocals on "Nikes" when mixed with the frustrations about materialism, status, and relationships in the lyrics convey a sense of alienation, his voice sounding almost inhuman. On "Ivy", Frank's voice is pitched up again, but noticeably less, with way more of his natural voice coming through. Considering the lyrics center around a long-dead relationship with an emphasis on how they were "kids", the pitch shift gives his voice more of a child-like tone. The dreamy production, with help from former Vampire Weekend membeproducer Rostam Batmanglij, creates a sense of wistful nostalgia mostly through reverb-heavy guitars and subdued synths. Even more pitch-shifting is used for the rap sections of "Nights" and "Futura Free", possibly conveying a sense of youthful arrogance in the latter, and for the chorus of "Self Control", sung by Austin Anderson, lead singer of underrated indie band Slow Hollows.
Quite possibly the only song on Blonde that wouldn't have sounded entirely out of place on channel ORANGE, "Pink + White" is also the album's most accessible track. Another longing love song with themes of mortality and nostalgia, it's still far from Top 40 radio, but the production from Pharrell Williams and a lush string arrangement from the legendary Jon Brion (who conducted my favorite film score, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as well as having worked with Kanye West, Fiona Apple, Sky Ferreria, Mac Miller, and others) gives the song extra punch. Of course, you can't talk about the song without mentioning Beyoncé, who drops by for an uncredited vocal performance, harmonizing behind Frank. As far as flexes go, getting Beyoncé on your album just for background vocals is definitely up there, but considering how Bey was one of Frank's first major co-signs, it makes a lot of sense. The final minute of the song, where Bey's harmonies, the piano and drum based beat, and the strings all swell, is purely beautiful.
Rosie Watson, the mother of one of Frank's close friends, makes her second appearance on a Frank Ocean album on the first interlude, "Be Yourself". Watson was known for leaving passionate speeches of advice to her son over the phone, and one of them was used for the channel ORANGE interlude "Not Just Money". That speech was about money, and this one is about drugs. Watson tells her son not to fall into peer pressure, to not try to be someone else, and to not take drugs unless its under doctor's supervision lest he become a "weed-head" who is "sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned". While her fears of addictive weed are probably based in daytime news fearmongering, the message of individuality resonates. Frank is well known for doing his own thing, from going off on his own to be a musician to being with Odd Future to being one of the only openly LGBTQ+ figures in hip hop and R&B to literally being on his own by self-releasing Blonde. Frank has definitely been himself, and he's all the better for it. The interlude also features a reoccurring motif of the album, the ambient track "Running Around" by producemusician Buddy Ross, who has since worked with artists like Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver. "Be Yourself", along with later interludes "Facebook Story" and "Good Guy" and the outro of "Futura Free", feature "Running Around" underscoring various figures sharing monologues that define their ideology. Is there a particular reason for using this song specifically? Maybe, but personally I just think it's because its a really great, relaxing ambient piece.
The album goes right from being yourself to being alone, two sides of a coin. "Solo" covers the fallout of a relationship, leading to Frank smoking weed by himself in the midst of the dark, empty world. The chorus invokes almost apocalyptic imagery, speaking of "hell on Earth" and "cities on fire". Drugs have become Frank's only shelter from the grim world, but unlike what Rosie Watson thinks, he's not taking them to be someone else. He knows things have ended, but can only escape with his mind altered. The lonely atmosphere of the song and biblical imagery of the chorus are both supported by a single (solo) organ being most of the song's backing instrumentation. James Blake, who played the organ and produced the track, is no stranger to minimalist atmospheres, having created many of them on his solo (ay!) music.
Continuing the minimalism of the previous track, "Skyline To" is a dreamscape of a song. There's a hazy guitar, subtle synths and buried drums (provided by Tyler, the Creator) along with sounds of nature, creating a relaxing vibe. Much like a dream, Frank's lyrics are stream of consciousness, ranging from the passage of time to weed to sex. Piercing adlibs underscore many of Frank's lines, mostly saying "smoke", "haze", and "blur". These adlibs were, for some reason, originally thought to be Kendrick Lamar, but this was later debunked when physical copies of Blonde were released with the official credits.
keep a place for me
One of the album's absolute high points and one of the most heartbreaking songs of the decade, "Self Control" describes the slow death of a relationship. The first half is mostly underscored by minimal guitars provided by Austin Anderson and (Sandy) Alex G, with Anderson dropping in both pitched and unpitched. However, midway through the song, it goes to a whole different level. A wordless, distorted vocal wail brings in a gorgeous string section, and Frank's vocals for the outro are beautifully layered, creating a For Emma-esque multi-track choir, which plays out the song in a way that's both quiet and intimate and grand and epic. It's a painful, dramatic end to a relationship that was once happy, and Frank knows that it will be over that night.
"Good Guy" feels like it comes from the direct aftermath of the breakup in "Self Control". Frank goes on a blind date set up through one of his friends to a gay bar, but comes away not feeling much. His date texts "nothing like you look", and talks "so much more" than Frank does. Most of all, Frank realizes that his date only sees it as a fun night, while Frank, profound as always, is hoping for a deeper connection. It's a simple interlude, with the only instrument being a keyboard, but it creates a sense of such distinct loneliness and disillusionment in the face of heartbreak that it's up there with the album's best songs.
every night fucks every day up
After the album dropped, "Nights" became an instant fan favorite. It's not hard to see why, with its melancholy tone, synth-heavy instrumental, and personal lyrics recapping Frank's life in Houston after Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown of New Orleans as well as relationship drama. The song feels more straightforward than others on the album, but then around the three minute mark things start changing up. Distorted guitar riffs drown out the synths, and get louder and louder before a beeping noise transitions into a ambient trap beat as Frank's voice gets more pitched up for a final rap verse and layered for the last chorus. The beat switch on "Nights" is almost memetically acclaimed, with my favorite being Big Quint's reaction. It's the kind of musical choice that really elevates a song, leading to its current reputation of being the favorite song of every depressed vibe guy who makes slowed + reverb versions of Frank, Tyler, and Lorde songs.
Before Blonde dropped, there was much speculation as to who would end up appearing on the album as a feature. Kanye West was floated often of course, along with Chance the Rapper (due to the "Nikes" tweet), Playboi Carti, Bon Iver, and others. However, once the album actually came out there wasn't much of anything you could call a feature. Beyoncé singing backing vocals on a song, Kim Burrell on another, some voices on interludes, Not!Kendrick Lamar on adlibs. However, the one clear actual feature on the album was one nobody could be disappointed by. On "Solo (Reprise)", the absolute legend Andre 3000 comes out of his cave long enough to drop an absolutely fire verse over mostly just piano and occasional off-kilter, experimental drums. It's not a long track, coming in barely over a minute and not featuring Frank himself, but Andre's dense lyrics about everything from police brutality to ghostwritten bars (something that many people took as a shot at Drake despite it being recorded before Drake's ghostwriting scandal broke) create an instantly memorable, fleeting experience that transitions into the next section of the album.
don't have much longer baby
While there are several songs on Blonde that show Frank going more "out there" than ever before, maybe the best example is "Pretty Sweet". Channeling the orchestral swells on The Beatles' "A Day in the Life", the song begins with an overwhelming, chaotic string section blasting. Frank is audible, but being drowned out by the noise around him, which gets louder and louder before dropping completely. The second section of the song has some reverb-heavy, layered vocals from Frank over neo-psychedelia/dream pop-esque guitars. Suddenly, for the final minute, a drum-and-bass beat drops, which Frank wordlessly harmonizes before giving way to a children's choir, who sing a short outro which name-drops the song's title. The lyrics to the song are abstract and vague, singing about parents, religion, fake friends, and mortality. According to Genius, "sweet" is a term from the south (where Frank grew up) meaning to call someone gay. It's an interesting read, and I honestly don't think you can fully exclude any interpretation of Frank's work.
Easily the most memed track when Blonde came out was "Facebook Story". The song isn't inherently funny, but it appears in the middle of a fairly dramatic stretch on the album and features a man with a thick accent talk about fighting with his girlfriend over Facebook. In the immediate panic of the album's release, the speaker was often incorrectly identified as Swedish cloud rapper Yung Lean (who was also incorrectly identified as a vocalist on "Self Control" and is officially listed as having vocals on "Godspeed"), but it's actually French house musician SebastiAn, who had worked with Frank on Endless. SebastiAn tells a story about having an argument with his then-girlfriend where she insists that he accept her on Facebook (or "Fazebuk" as he pronounces it). When SebastiAn refuses because she's in front of him and its unnecessary, she accuses him of cheating on her and breaks up with him. The interlude follows the pattern of the previous interludes, telling a wider story on modern culture. Rosie Watson tells her son to be himself and to not be someone he isn't, something that resonates heavy in our hypercapitalist modern culture, which emphasizes buying expensive status items and creating a Personal Brand to sell yourself. "Good Guy" takes things to modern relationships, which in Frank's view lead to more people just trying to find some fun for the night rather than deeper meaning. On "Facebook Story", a relationship is severed over not being "friends" on a social media app when you're in the same room. Much of modern culture is defined by our status symbols, and among them is the idea that a relationship isn't official until it hits social media.
Finishing a four-song run of shorter tracks in the album's second half ("Pretty Sweet" is the longest of these at 2 and a half minutes) is "Close to You". Frank, who had listed Stevie Wonder as an influence on his new music all the way back in 2013, now reworks a Stevie cover of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song "Close to You". It's not an exact word-for-word cover, but the inspiration is clear and a short piece of Stevie's talkbox-filtered voice appears at the end. Frank's verse, delivered through a vocoder effect provided by indie pop musician Francis and the Lights, is about the aftermath of a rough breakup, fitting with the previous interlude. Religious imagery comes up again, with Frank saying he's "preaching to this choir, to this atheist" when it comes to talking to his ex. He's not devastated by their breakup (touching back to the dichotomy of the relationship on "Nikes" and "Self Control") but he's lonely ("Solo") and worried about getting older. It's become ingrained in us that our twenties are the time where we become an adult, find a partner, and settle down, which leads to people feeling pressured to stick with people they might not have otherwise. Nobody wants to die alone and unloved, and it's a genuine feeling of anxiety for many that once they hit 30, they're basically a senior. Things in Frank's relationship may have ended badly, and he misses them deeply, but he still has memories that the two of them shared, and nobody can take those memories away.
your dilated eyes watch the clouds float
You might remember the "White Ferrari" tweet I mentioned from DJ A-Trak, where he said the song would be heard in a matter of weeks and it would be the best thing we heard that year. While it was more like months, the second part is 100% true. "White Ferrari" is my favorite song on Blonde and one of my favorites of all time.
"White Ferrari" is the sound of driving into the early hours of the morning, letting your partner rest their head on your shoulder as you look up at the stars. It's an epic story of a relationship from his teen years, special, valuable, and pure (like a "white Ferrari"), a nod to the fleeting moments we have in this world and who we spend those moments with. The song is sonically intimate, mostly backed with ambient-esque synths and quiet acoustic guitars. There's a really cinematic quality to the instrumental to me, feeling like the soundtrack to a great indie film, and the presence of Jon Brion on the song hammers that home. Frank goes for it vocally on the track too, starting in his lower register, adding some beautiful vocal layering in the middle to create an amazing harmony effect, and ending in a quiet falsetto that could be mistaken for Justin Vernon (and it has). The final verse in particular is wonderfully abstract, with a series of wistful metaphors for wishing things had just been different. We wonders why couldn't they be older ("I'm sure we're taller in another dimension"), which feels like a poetic take on the sentiment from the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice". He just wishes they could go wherever they wanna go, go back to the basics and beginning of their relationship, when they were "primal and naked", a line that can be interpreted as invoking early human imagery or the passion that comes from the start of a sexual relationship. He just wants them to be go beyond their imagined walls, go to where the boundaries are limitless ("You dream of walls that hold us in prison / It's just a skull, least that's what they call it / And we're free to roam"). However, like in many songs throughout the album, there's a sense of depressing reality setting in. They spent so much time together, thought what they happened was special, one of a kind, and profound. However, things didn't work out like that, and now Frank is alone and trying to figure things out. It's a beautiful song, and interpolating The Beatles' "Here, There, and Everywhere" on the line "Spending each day of the year" definitely helps. In another interesting note, the release of the full credits for the album revealed that Kanye West co-wrote "White Ferrari". Kanye's exact contributions to the song aren't known, but I'm grateful for anyone who took part on creating this perfect song.
"Seigfried" might be the most abstract and poetic breakup song ever recorded. Frank, in typical Frank fashion, takes a song about the end of relationship and brings it to deep existential ideas, mortality, and religion. Frank is frustrated by the end of a relationship, and considers that he should give up and just try for the idealized nuclear family, living in the suburbs behind a white picket fence with a few kids. But he rejects that, and it leads him down a darker path, one of life, death, God, and humanity itself. Frank isn't normal, he isn't superficial and based in status symbols, he wants something deeper and more profound. He wishes he could see God in a way that someone else could, even just a glimpse of belief, but is disillusioned by religion, something that was heavily touched on in the channel ORANGE song "Bad Religion". Frank wants to be able to believe, but he can't help but think about the fragility of human existence. A solar flare could turn our society upside down or end it entirely in a moment, which makes searches for deeper meaning seem pointless. This throws back to the invoking of the Heaven's Gate imagery from the "Nikes" video. People search for deeper meaning or satisfaction out of life in all kinds of varying ways. In Frank's eyes, he'd rather enjoy himself with film photography and psychedelic drugs. In the end, however, things circle back to what matters in the moment, the death of a relationship. He'd do anything for his ex, anything to bring them back. The psychedelic, dream-poppy production of the song is absolutely gorgeous, layering filtered guitars and keys with a dramatic string arrangement from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, underscoring the deep existentialism of the song.
Because it's her favorite song on the album, I reached out to the amazing GoWestYoungKanye for a word on "Seigfried", and this is what she sent:
"‘Seigfried’ is my favourite song off all time — well, it’s tied for first with Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’, at least. For three years, I listened to it every single night before I slept, at least once, finding it more and more spell-binding and resonant and splendid with each listen. (I’m an insomniac, things that put me to sleep are rare, and I tend to give ‘it put me to sleep’ as a compliment.)Thank you Kiki ❤️
For me, at least, ‘Seigfried’ is the rawest song on an album that drips blood; there is something so infinite and agonising about the way Frank sings ‘two kids and a swimming pool’, and calls out ‘brave!’, echoing himself uncertainly. Most people are familiar with the beat switch at the album’s midpoint, and have rightfully lauded it, but the second the strings come in under Frank as he croons ‘I’m livin’ over city / And taking in the homeless sometimes’, acting as the track’s pulse, a quickened heart rate, is easily one of the best few seconds on the album, even if the bassline is only temporary. It wounds me, and it heals me, in the same way ‘Feeling Good’ does.
Ultimately, I think the beauty of ‘Seigfried’ is in its honesty: an attempt at subversion fails; Frank is not brave; he’s a fool. He attempts to slot the minutiae of love (his lover’s freckles and his own crooked teeth [among other flaws]) into the hetero-nuclear ideal (two kids and a suburban house with a swimming pool) but comes up empty — as I listen, I find myself thinking of the word ‘emptiness’ constantly, and the track echoes in the empty space accordingly. Sometimes, it's good to be alone."
"Godspeed" connects things back to the theme of religion. James Blake, who created a religious atmosphere on "Solo", is back in a more ambient take on gospel sounds. There's a prominent organ with some quiet electric pianos, digital strings, and an outro from gospel singer Kim Burrell. The first verse includes a direct Bible reference, tying into a Psalms 23 quote about always preparing a table in the presence of your enemies. Despite how Frank's relationship with his partner ended, he would still be there for them no matter what, and would offer them a place in his home. He wishes his ex godspeed on wherever they go in their future life, wanting them to live safely and happily even when they aren't together anymore. Frank's moving on, and with the knowledge that the relationship is over, still giving his best to his former partner.
how far is a light year?
This brings us to the final song on Blonde. While "Futura Free" is nine minutes long, it's split into a song and an extended outro interlude. Bringing things full circle by pitching his voice up for a majority of the song, Frank raps about his life, his upbringing, his fame, and the uncertainty of life. He references 2Pac and Selena, two stars who died young. He's living the life he wants to live, but not taking it for granted. He's grateful for all the success he's had, but still nostalgic for his life before the fame. It's stream of conscious, but Frank can make that sound profound. The production is kind of celebratory, but also kind of melancholic, capturing the uncertain feeling of the song perfectly. As one final way of tying everything together, at the near five minute mark, the song proper ends, and after a long silence, the interlude begins. Called "Interviews", it features a series of questions asked to Frank's brother Ryan, rappeproducedesigner Sage Elsesser (also known as Navy Blue), and others by skater and designer Mikey Alfred. It's a nostalgic piece, allowing the guys to goof around and answer questions about superpowers and secret talents. The final line of the album, spoken by Alfred, is "How far is a light year?". In the moment, it was innocuous, but as a way to play out Blonde, it takes on a deep, profound meaning. Frank has taken us on a journey, and that journey has ended for now, but there's so much more to go.
please run that back though
Blonde is one of the only albums I'd consider legitimately perfect. It's creative and unique, an album that people have since tried to recreate but not been able to. It's intimate, lush, and ambient, but also experimental and incredibly out there. The lyrics are heartbreaking and personal, but also existential and profound. There's a dichotomy to it, one that ties perfectly back to Frank's "two versions" he mentioned in the Post. Frank has seemed comfortable with taking his time on the next album, and considering how worth it Blonde was given the long wait, I have complete faith in him coming back and dropping another great album in the 2020s. No matter how long it takes. Thank you for reading.
- Where would you like to see Frank go on his next album? His future music has been previously described as "space reggae" and taking inspiration from “nightlife, Detroit, techno, house”.
- There are many ways to interpret the overarching concept of Blonde. If you can sum up what the album means in 10 words or less, how would you?
- Frank announced a release date for Blonde, missed it, and then went a full year before another update. Are artists entitled to keep fans updated of delays?
- Frank made headlines on Blonde by releasing it independently aside from an initial exclusivity deal with Apple Music. Could you see this being the dominating future strategy, or do the labels have too much power for it to ever really work?
[RATE] The Life of Pablo vs. Views vs. Coloring Book vs. Blonde
For this month, I’m going to be running our first four album rate, covering some of 2016’s biggest names in hip hop and R&B. The year would have been different if not for these four black artists, all of whom got attention for unique approaches in both rollouts and music. All four albums were released as part of the new trend of exclusitivity in music, with three being released via Apple Music (one with no prior announcement) and one via Tidal.
The albums are:
Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
Drake - Views
Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
Frank Ocean - Blonde
HOW TO RATE/RULES:
- Fairly listen to and rate each song listed on a scale of 10 to 1, 10 being perfect and 1 terrible. You can give ONE song (for the whole rate, not per album) a 11, and ONE song a 0 for your fave/least fave. Decimals are allowed, but you cannot give songs higher then 10 or lower then 1 besides your 11/0. No 10.X or 0.X scores are allowed, and if I get them I’ll change them. Also know that your scores aren’t confidential and the high/low ones will be shown with the results.
- If you want, write comments with your thoughts. This is encouraged since it makes the reveals more fun, but not required.
- PM your scores & comments to me (ThereIsNoSantaClaus) by December 31st. Once it hits 2017, I won’t be accepting any scores.
- Sometime in early January I’ll be revealing the results, going from the bottom (aka the Drake zone) to the top.
- Overly negative scores and sabotage towards only one album will be discounted. If your average score is less then a 2.5-3, I will not count your scores. Overly negative scores (i.e. giving more then half of the songs 1s) can also be discounted.
- Since this rate includes albums with interludes, I’ve decided to make the interludes seperate from the regular rate. If you want (it’s not required) rate the interludes as well and send me any scores/comments with the rest. Since this is seperate, you can give one interlude a 11 (Yeezy yeezy) and one a 0. If I have enough scores, I’ll do a special reveal before the first day of results.
- Some of the songs we’re rating have different versions. For The Life of Pablo, rate the final version that’s on streaming. If you have a version without Saint Pablo, it’s not the final version. Also make sure to rate the Charlie Heat version of Facts, the Drake-only version of Pop Style, etc. Both versions of Blessings are on the album tho so rate them both.
KANYE WEST - THE LIFE OF PABLO
Does Kanye need an introduction? A highly publicized but divisive figure, he attracts strong reactions from basically everyone. A producer who got a big break through Jay Z, Kanye moved into rapping and put out three successful education themed albums: 2004’s The College Dropout, 2005’s Late Registration, and 2007’s Graduation. After a breakup with his fiance and the death of his mother, Kanye moved into electropop for 2008’s divisive 808s & Heartbreak, and following a period of heavy scrutiny from his interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, Kanye went into exile and came back out with his most acclaimed album yet, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He collabed with Jay Z and his label GOOD Music on full-length albums, then returned with the minimalist Yeezus in 2013. Kanye has seen much acclaim for his music despite his love or hate personality, winning 21 Grammy Awards and influencing artists from Kendrick Lamar to Chance the Rapper to Drake to Kid Cudi to Frank Ocean. He has been married to reality star Kim Kardashian since 2014 and they have two kids together.
Kanye began working on a followup to Yeezus in 2014. He released two singles, “Only One” and “All Day”, in early 2015, but news on the album, named So Help Me God and then SWISH, slowed as the year moved on. Kanye resumed work on the project late in 2015, releasing “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in LA” through Soundcloud in January and renaming the album twice more to Waves and then finally to The Life of Pablo. Two days after premiering the album at a huge listening party in Madison Square Garden, Kanye released the album to Tidal on February 14th, 2016. However, he would continue to change the album after its release, even adding a new song in June, over 4 months after it came out. Kanye supported the album with the Saint Pablo Tour, which was cancelled in November when he was hospitalized over increased stress and dehydration.
THE LIFE OF PABLO
- Ultralight Beam
- Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1
- Pt. 2
- Freestyle 4
- Real Friends
- 30 Hours
- No More Parties in LA
- Facts (Charlie Heat Version)
- Saint Pablo
Another artist who needs little introduction, Drake has become one of the biggest names of the 2010s. Getting his start as an actor on the Canadian show Degrassi, Drake moved into music, and after leaving the show he broke through in 2009 with his mixtape So Far Gone, signing to his mentor Lil Wayne’s Young Money label. He released his debut album in 2010, and the acclaimed follow-up Take Care a year after. 2013’s Nothing Was the Same was another smash, and spawned the hits “Started from the Bottom” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. Drake said his next album would be inspired by his hometown of Toronto and called Views from the 6 in 2014, but in the meantime he released the hugely successful mixtapes If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive (a collaboration with Future). After years of buildup, Drake finally released Views on April 29th, 2016. The album was a huge success, spending 13 nonconsecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 and giving Drake his first solo #1 single, “One Dance”. Drake has made a name for himself through his career with his mix of R&B and hip hop, which he described himself as “Drake featuring Drake”. In 2011, he cosigned and helped the career of another rising star out of Toronto, The Weeknd.
- Keep the Family Close
- U With Me?
- Feel No Ways
- Weston Road Flows
- With You
- Still Here
- One Dance
- Childs Play
- Pop Style (Album Version)
- Too Good
- Fire & Desire
- Hotline Bling
The youngest artist in this rate by five years, Chance the Rapper is one of the brightest young stars in hip hop right now. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Chance wrote his first mixtape 10 Day while suspended from school for smoking. The next year, he blew up off of his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap, which was named one of the best projects of 2013 by many publications. Chance laid low from new solo music the next few years, but he and his fellow members of the band The Social Experiment released their debut album Surf in 2015 to positive reactions. In late 2015, Chance released the new singles “Angels” and “Somewhere in Paradise”, leading up to the release of Coloring Book (previously known as Chance 3) on May 12th, 2016. So far in 2016, Chance has collaborated with Kanye West, debuted his Chicago-based music festival Magnificent Coloring Day (which featured appearances from Lil Wayne, Kanye, John Legend, and others), and been invited to the White House by President Obama.
- All We Got
- No Problem
- Summer Friends
- Same Drugs
- Juke Jam
- All Night
- How Great
- Smoke Break
- Finish Line/Drown
- Blessings (Reprise)
One of the most celebrated but also cryptic acts of the decade, Frank Ocean has become one of the biggest names in modern R&B. Growing up in New Orleans, Frank moved to Los Angeles after his equipment was lost to Hurricane Katrina, joining the hip hop collective Odd Future in 2009. Frank got attention from his mixtape Nostalgia Ultra in 2011, and got the chance to work with Jay Z and Kanye West on their collab album Watch the Throne. Frank’s 2012 debut album Channel Orange was met with acclaim from critics, six Grammy nominations, and that year, he also made headlines by coming out as bisexual through an open letter, gaining positive response from the industry. In 2013, he said he was working on a followup, but years would go by with little news about the album. In April 2015, he posted a picture announcing an album, apparently titled Boys Don’t Cry, would be released in July, along with a magazine. However, nothing came out and July passed. A year later in July 2016, Frank once again hinted that the album was coming that month, but nothing came until the early hours of August, when a mysterious livestream of Frank building a staircase to new music began on Apple Music. It was later revealed to be a visual album called Endless, and two days later Frank would finally release his second studio album Blonde on August 20th, 2016 with no prior announcement that it was coming. Blonde recieved acclaim from critics, but was purposefully held out of Grammy consideration by Frank.
- Pink + White
- Skyline To
- Self Control
- Pretty Sweet
- White Ferrari
- Futura Free