Treble 100, No. 23: Frank Ocean – Blonde

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Frank Ocean Blonde

It’s 1972, and Stevie Wonder is doing something beautiful and strange. Seated at a keyboard, he’s feeling out the words for a warbling take on the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” on live TV, with what looks like a pneumatic tube hanging from his mouth. The device is morphing his voice in a crystalline imitation, pitched-up and fractal, downright digital. It sounds like the keyboard he’s playing. Sitting behind Stevie, the host David Frost talks with his face alone. He grins and absorbs the fun, not quite sure what to make of it. But when Stevie stops booting up and sings with new force, segueing into the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Frost is a picture of gobsmacked joy. 

He and viewers were witnessing the national television debut of the talk box—not quite a musical instrument itself, but more like a liaison between two of them. No bigger than a paperback, the device is usually hooked up to a keyboard or a guitar. The mouth tube is the vehicle for the other instrument in this equation: the human voice. Every note played rushes through the tube and becomes aural clay for the singer to mold with their own cadence. But the voice isn’t just the shaper here. It gets manipulated, too, doused in its adjoined instrument’s timbre. Before the David Frost performance, the talk box had gained some footing with ‘60s pedal steel player Pete Drake’s eerily placid “talking steel guitar.” Stevie puts it in service of deep feeling, blending cold futurism with naked yearning. 

It’s 2016, and like a happy memory unbidden, Stevie’s performance bubbles up on Blonde, Frank Ocean’s second and most recent studio album. It’s a quick vocal sample, only the kernel of the reclusive, genre-defying, pop songwriter-turned-groundbreaking-solo-artist’s own warped and skittering take on “Close to You.” But the kinship runs deeper than it seems.

Frank is never derivative but always adept at borrowing. In their own ways, all his projects ascribe to the paradox that the most accurate way to present oneself is by arrangement of outside artifacts. Endless, the abstract visual album that accompanied Blonde’s release, starts with an Isley Brothers cover. His 2012 debut LP, Channel Orange, courses with found sounds from video games, commercials and conversations, deeply layered digital blips. Nostalgia, Ultra, his breakout free mixtape in 2011, lifts entire master tracks from extremely well-known songs: Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” and even the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (whose ensuing copyright controversy exposed Don Henley as “old man yells at cloud” par excellence). 

Blonde is a new kind of scrapbook, drawing its parts from within but dependent on outside voices for its depth. Every contributor here shines, even when they don’t do much. Andre 3000 packs career-spanning poignancy into a minute-long verse. James Blake plays the church organ. And (my personal favorite) Alex G adds patient, homespun folk guitar to “Self Control” and “White Ferrari.” All of them find their natural position in Frank’s private collage without compromising their individual styles. For having a largely hushed, drumless aesthetic, Blonde is a multifarious and deceptively crowded album: famous backup singers, many keyboards, a string section, electric guitars that sound like synth bells, acoustic guitars that conjure a campfire, echoes of Brian Wilson, direct quotations of the Beatles and Elliott Smith.

The proliferation of voices isn’t just musical. “Be Yourself,” one of two short skits, is a snippet from an actual voicemail message Frank received from psychologist Rosie Watson, a childhood friend’s mother, urging him “not to drink alcohol, not to use drugs . . . When people become weed heads they become sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned.” Immediately after this skit comes “Solo,” which opens with a description of Frank revved up on acid, dancing alone like Mick Jagger. So is Rosie’s simply the voice of an overbearing authority figure to be ignored? Or does the voicemail signal wisdom that Frank is still grasping for? In the other skit, “Facebook Story,” producer SebastiAn recounts how an ex broke up with him, suspecting him of cheating because he refused to accept her friend request on Facebook. It’s equally hard to know what this anecdote’s doing here. Is it an indictment of social media’s destructive influence on intimacy? Is SebastiAn just kind of a dick? Or, like so many other songs on Blonde, does “Facebook Story” simply reveal a commonplace incompatibility between two people? Neither skit offers an answer. Both are pigments coloring Blonde’s tapestry of voices.

Chief among those voices, of course, is Frank’s own. But even that’s not as straightforward as it seems. On Blonde, more so than ever before, Frank treats his vocals as a starting point. Channel Orange opened with “Thinkin’ Bout You,” one of his most open-hearted pop songs and best showcases for vocal acrobatics unadorned. It’s hard to imagine a more different opener than Blonde leadoff “Nikes.” It’s not clear, at first, whether the first voice we hear even belongs to Frank—pinched and pitched up chipmunk style, androgynous. “These bitches want Nikes/ They lookin’ for a check/ Tell ‘em it ain’t likely,” the voice sneers over a pillowy bass walkdown that ends with an out-of-key note. “Says she need a ring like Carmelo/ Must be on that white like Othello.” Tender love song this is not. It’s something much harder to pin down but no less emotional, offering only unmoored snippets of drug-induced glitz (“Acid on me like the rain/ Weed crumbles into glitter”) and strained connection (“He don’t care for me/ But he cares for me/ And that’s good enough”) while a woozy groove rides on.

The effect crops up again at the beginning of “Self Control,” when Frank sets the stage for an effervescent memory of a “poolside convo about your summer,” and finally on closer “Futura Free,” the album’s autobiographical “Last Call”-esque coda. In all cases, the pitched-up voice signals an exuberance both youthful and ageless, the giddy sense of non-boundary that memory stirs in all of us from time to time. The effect is both disarming and inviting, devilishly fun to listen to.

But we’re still talking about the artist who came up writing songs for A-list pop stars—Justin Bieber, Beyonce, John Legend. When Frank wants to write a pop song, he’ll knock it out of the park, and Blonde is no exception. The first half of the bipolar “Nights” is the best Drake song Drake never wrote; in the second half, the same material comes unglued into an acoustic lullaby (“Every night fucks every day up/ Every day patches the night up.”) “Ivy” is the darker cousin of “Thinkin’ Bout You,” a searing memory of infatuation gone sour: “If you could see my thoughts, you would see our faces/ Safe in my rental like an armored truck back then/ We didn’t give a fuck back then,” Frank mourns, and then belts, “I ain’t a kid no more/ We’ll never be those kids again.” There isn’t much of a musical skeleton, just watery palm-muted guitar above a staccato bass line that compensates for the lack of percussion. But against such a minimal backdrop, bleeding emotion and melody take center stage.

“Solo,” one of Frank’s greatest songs to date, does even more with less, this time with only James Blake’s organ and the occasional human whistle. In case there was any doubt he still had his narrative touch after Channel Orange, Frank gives us another gut-wrenching vignette of love lost at a high price (“Ain’t shit free and I know it/ Even love ain’t, ’cause this nut cost/ That clinic killed my soul”) with cosmic imagery (“There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky”) and closely observed details on modern loneliness (​​“I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you/ Stayed up ’til my phone died.”) And the singing, more forceful and less processed here than anywhere else, speaks for itself. Robert Christgau wrote that “soulful strength is the pop audience’s bottom line.” In “Solo” that’s almost all there is.

And as long as we’re talking about soulful strength, it would be criminal to ignore “Godspeed,” the slight, gorgeous song tucked behind “Futura Free” at the end of the record. Assisted by gospel singer Kim Burrell, the song is pure exultation, full-throated like “Solo” but with a mood of deep release in place of loneliness, and disarmingly direct given all that’s come before. For the first time on the album, Frank finds equanimity in the death of a close relationship: “I will always love you/ How I do . . . I let go of my claim on you/ It’s a free world.” In the process, he lends Blonde a sense of progress all the more satisfying for its simplicity. This could have been a much longer and grander song—a multi-part suite, an opera of emotion. But here it’s only a short eruption of feeling, its aftermath a sung whisper.

As of this writing, it’s been eight years since Blonde dropped. It’s taken on legendary status as possibly Frank’s last album. Just a handful of singles have emerged in that time, none since 2020 and together not amounting to anything like a cohesive project. Last year’s now-infamous, hamstrung Coachella set only raised more questions. 

But I’m not worried about it. Blonde hasn’t failed me yet, and it’s shown a new hand with every listen. I’ve cried to it in the car. I’ve belted along to it, possessed to imitate high notes I didn’t care if I actually hit. I’ve laughed at its skits, and learned from them, too.  I’ve drawn comfort from its honest assessments of chance and desire through detail. I’m in no more danger of exhausting it than my own memories.

And like memories themselves, the voices on this album aren’t fixed. They’re wobbly, shifting tones flowing in and out of other instruments, sometimes front and center, sometimes in grainy static like an uncracked code. And Frank Ocean, the stolid center of all this swirling emotion, is the talk box.

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