Review and Analysis of Pitchfork’s Number One Album of the Decade: Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”
October 25, 2019
“Revolutionary“, “storytelling”, and “baffling” are just a few of the words that critics have used to describe Frank Ocean’s music over the ages. Ocean, the 30-year old former member of rap collective “Odd Future” and enigma of the music industry, has inarguably ascended all planes of musical skill and innovation. All of Ocean’s prior life experiences- his experiences with ghostwriting, unrequited love, releasing a critically acclaimed debut album- seem as though they were lovingly seeded into a garden and encouraged to bloom into the odyssey that is his second studio album, “Blonde”. Pitchfork’s top 200 albums of the decade list featured “Blonde” as number one. Ocean surprise-released a new song, “DHL”, this past week. I figured that no time was better than now for a review, analysis, and breakdown of “Blonde”, song by song.
“Blonde” is the epic tale of a man, Frank Ocean himself, whose vast life experiences have made him aware of his own mortality and fragility- but doesn’t know what to do with the depressing insignificance of this realization. Ocean uses motifs of summer and bleached hair to portray the carefree nature of adolescence, and its eventual end. “Blonde” offers a peek into the broken souls that were never consoled, articulately weaving themes of youth, loss, and nostalgia into an instrumental mood that is hazy, heart wrenching, and genre-defying. This unobtrusive production allows Ocean’s voice to shine, the reasoning behind this method described perfectly by Pitchfork: “Because he is a writer first, he kinks his voice to suit his characters and his stories.” It is hard to untangle lyrically, filled with Shakespearean allusion and personal anecdotes that, when looked at from afar, deviate into a nebulous image of Ocean’s life. Simply: “Blonde” could shatter a heart to dust.
The first verse of “Nikes” is a woozy critique of materialism and the seemingly elegant things that entrap many in a false sense of satisfaction and shallow relationships. Lyrical imagery and pitched up vocals present a whimsical image of wealth and eloquence, eventually revealing it to be a fantasy. This verse also includes a nod to Trayvon Martin.
Verse two shifts to vocals that are not pitched, signifying a shift in the vulnerability and emotional depth of the song’s lyricism up to this point. This shift is also marked with the introduction of gentle guitar strings. In his natural voice, Ocean croons about the absurd number of journalists trying to predict his next step musically, singing, “we’ll let you guys prophesy.” This also acts as a commentary on the tendency of humans to speak judgmentally and preemptively about others, and how much this holds them back. Ocean’s flow, which continually shifts cadence, then switches back to the flighty materialism of nightlife and drug culture, and the meaningless relationships that these factors often contribute to.
Production wise, this song is the perfect opener to the album, epitomizing the druggy, hazy mood that reappears consistently throughout the rest of “Blonde.” The final bridge is sung with a heartbreaking bluntness that shatters the illusion of intimacy, as Ocean nearly whispers “I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you.” The last few seconds of the song feature just drums as the rest of the instruments slowly fade out, allowing the listener to really sit with what they have just heard.
In “Ivy,” Frank Ocean reflects on the tribulations of a lost relationship, and the mistakes that led him there. His vocals hit like a punch to the gut, dropping in immediately at the 0:01 second mark with the raw lyrics “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me.” In the songs first verse, Ocean begins by juxtaposing literal walls with the metaphorical ones that created an emotional bar between the two lovers. Among the song’s melancholic production, Ocean disperses happy imagery from his childhood through lines such as, “no matter what I did back then, my waves wouldn’t dip back then,” contributing to the nostalgic atmosphere. The same gentle guitar joins a deep bassline and dreamy, echoey synth, acting as the perfect backdrop for Ocean’s crescendoing voice in the second verse.
The volume of the production picks up and Ocean begins to shout the words “we’ll never be those kids again,” conveying the all-consuming pain and urgency of this realization. The outro is delivered as a sort of crescendo monologue, in which Ocean begins by whispering and his voice slowly picks up. As he repeats the words “I’ve been dreaming of you,” the lyrics become more and more distorted until they are nearly incomprehensible. In the final twenty seconds of the song, the only sounds heard are those of instruments breaking and being thrown around the studio, accurately and physically conveying the anger that Ocean feels towards his situation.
Pink and White
The title of Blonde’s third song, “Pink and White,” is meant to be a descriptor for the sky during a particular moment that Ocean is describing to the listener throughout this song. “Pink and White” is produced by Pharell Williams and features background vocals from Beyoncè. It opens with a sudden, orchestral violin that is all the more powerful following the silence at the end of “Ivy.” This song is heavy on mood, the syllabic structure is simple and the lyrics are minimal, yet each word is packed with meaning.
Verse one touches on the unpredictable nature of life, then juxtaposes this by simplifying the sky and earth to two colors: pink and white, and black and yellow. Additionally, in the chorus, Ocean’s voice picks up, signifying the high of the relationship between him and whoever he is with in this moment. However, Ocean notes that this euphoric feeling of freedom will not last (as nothing does in the world of “Blonde”), as he sings “it’s all downhill from here.”
Verse two touches on Ocean’s experience being displaced from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. He looks back at the destruction Katrina caused through rose-tinted goggles, describing the effects of the flooding as a means to “cannonball off the porch side,” continuing the bittersweet atmosphere of nostalgia. This verse continues with earth and destruction related imagery. The violin then dissipates into more stringwork and piano with birds chirping and Ocean’s vocals scattered throughout the production. In the outro, Ocean’s vocals join those of Beyoncè and pick up. These high instrumental notes, vocals, and nature sounds give the song a natural, free feeling that could be likened to flying through the sky.
The entirety of “Be Yourself” is a voicemail from Rosie Watson, the mother of one of Ocean’s childhood friends, framed by a simple electronic piano. The short skit details the tendency of kids to get involved with alcohol and drugs, specifically marijuana, as they age and begin to experience more freedom. Watson then denounces this and urges the listener to avoid substances- rather, simply be themselves. The song closes with, “this is mom, call me, bye.” This, paired with the voicemail aesthetic of the recording and the fact that it is such maternal advice makes the message of the speaker all the more powerful and nostalgic-feeling.
“Solo” considers the various states of loneliness and freedom, featuring the same synth and basslines that make the album so concise. The title is a double entendre: “solo,” as in being alone, and “so low,” as in metaphorically at a low point in your life. Ocean uses his vocals to play around with this word throughout the song.
The first verse opens with vivid imagery describing a drug-fueled night out that he uses as an opportunity to confess his attraction for someone he is with, but he is not met with reciprocity. Suddenly, Ocean is upset and driving home, saying “my eyes like them red lights,” to describe his inebriated state as he carefully drives home, consumed by loneliness.
In the chorus, Ocean’s vocals pick up once more as he describes the turmoils of the world. A significant line in the chorus is “inhale, in hell there’s heaven.” Ocean plays with the word inhale to make it sound both like the verb “inhale” and “in hell”. He is also describing the coping method he has discovered within smoking, singing that inhaling allows it to seem like he is heaven- when in reality he is at such a low point that he feels as though he is in hell. However, depending on one’s perspective, these words could have the more optimistic interpretation that Ocean is telling the listener not to worry, and that things will get better regardless of how bad they seem- that there’s always a heaven within hell.
Solo’s second verse details the way loneliness and addiction go hand in hand, as substances often help to dull the feeling of being alone. When Ocean is on drugs, he feels invincible, like he is flying, but eventually the high ends and he comes crashing back to the reality that is his low point.
“Skyline To” is a sort of tone poem slash interlude in which Frank Ocean is rambling about a variety of topics stretching from summer to drugs. The beginning of “Skyline To” is silent, nothing can be heard except for Ocean’s vocals. Slowly, forest sounds fade in, along with soft guitar. As the song builds, Ocean slowly sprinkles in more synthesizer and a subtle, fast-paced bass. All of these dreamy, subtle, nature-esque sounds contribute to the beauty of the song and its golden imagery.
In this song, Ocean continues his rosy perspective of the past, continuing with the motif of summer representing happiness, such as in the opening line: “this is joy, this is summer.” In the song’s second and final verse, Ocean plays with words to create imagery of a sunset. He says, “on comes the evening, gold seeking ends,” referencing a golden sunset at the end of the day, its rays stretching across the earth.
“Self Control,” my personal favorite song on the album, is a heartbreaking masterpiece of a love song and epitomizes nearly every theme on “Blonde.” It discusses the gradual demise of a relationship that began when both members were young and immature, during the summer. This slow ballad commentates on the ways in which people grow apart, usually to uncontrollable factors. The intro begins with spoken vocals from Ocean, which are pitched up, possibly to reflect that he is reminiscing on his past, when he was younger.
In the first verse, Ocean references the title of the album and introduces an extremely significant motif of artificially blonde hair and what it represents. He sings, “you cut your hair, but you used to live a blonded life.” Throughout the album, Ocean uses hair that has been dyed blonde as a symbol of youth and the carelessness that comes with it. With this line, he is stating that his lover has cut their dyed hair off, emblematic of them maturing and leaving their past behind. Following this, Ocean delivers the poignantly honest line “wish we’d grown up on the same advice.” This line reflects that in addition to Ocean and his lover no longer being at the same maturity level, they also have opposing ideologies contributing to the downfall of their romantic relationship.
The chorus continues the theme of pitched up vocals, as Austin Feinstein sings, “keep a place for me/ I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.” With such depressing vulnerability, Ocean is asking his lover to remember him in his future endeavours, no matter what happens between them. In Self Control’s outro, the synthesizer and violin bloom to their full extent and form a wall of sound, which Ocean gracefully shatters with his vocals. With echoey chants, he repeats the line, “I, I, I know you gotta leave, leave, leave,” in between bars about summer ending. The swelling of ethereal production and Ocean’s rhythmic chanting create a whirlpool of sound and heartbreak and, as the song slowly fades out, the listener is quite literally able to feel Ocean’s emotion.
“Good Guy” acts as yet another brief interlude with a vulnerable musical atmosphere. The only production is soft, simple piano, highlighted by vocals that are raw and nearly spoken. Once again, Ocean touches on the theme of loneliness- this time, when it is the result of meaningless intimacy.
“Nights” is an extremely crucial song on the album, and is split into two parts differentiated by production, rap style, and theme. As the song’s opening electric piano slowly fades into guitar and sparse double stroke bass drum, Ocean sings, “round your city, round the clock/ everybody needs you,” opening the scene of his story. As the first verse progresses, he introduces us to the highs and lows of a previous relationship. In the song’s pre-chorus, the beat and tone begin to shift as Ocean rhythmically chants about new beginnings. This eventually flows into the actual chorus, where he continues his rhythmic flow and connects this relationship to his current stresses and recreational use of drugs. The harmonic swells of synthesizer and fast-paced kick drum machine that built around the chorus begin to flatten out and stretch.
With the introduction of the bridge comes a steady electronic blip that builds around more electric guitar until these are the only sounds that can be heard. Eventually, the guitar cuts out and the electronic blip increases to a frantic pace and then, silence. More slow, trap-esque snare drum is introduced around piano and vocals from Ocean that are soft and gentle.
This dramatic beat switch falls at 3:30, marking the exact halfway point of the album and the conceptual shift that it is about to occur. The crash from such heavy electric instrumentation to somber production is interpreted by many to parallel the crash and comedown following a high. No matter your interpretation, duality becomes crucial from this point on as the tone of the entire album is about to change. No longer impacted by the use of substances, Ocean is forced to remove his rose-tinted glasses and nearly speaks, “every night messes every day up.”
“Solo (reprise)” is, as stated by the title, a reprise to the earlier song, “Solo.” It features rapper Andrè 3000, who raps with a flawless flow about a variety of topics. With a bitter tone, he condemns materialism and spews disappointment towards other rappers who don’t work for their accolades. As the beat flows from erratic piano to chaotic electronic beeps and 808 bass drums, Andrè moves the cadence of his voice around it, continuing to toy with the homophone “solo.”
Chaotic, experimental, bold. “Pretty Sweet” is hard to make sense of both sonically and lyrically, and this is exactly what Frank Ocean intended. Lyrically, it touches on the duality of every aspect of life: relationships, sexuality, existence, even the afterlife itself. These concepts are framed instrumentally with chaotic production to reflect how confusing and frightening this duality is. The song opens with sporadic synthesizer and strings.
Slowly, Ocean blends his vocals and a lyrical arrangement that purposely lacks structure, in conjunction with the structureless production. Sudden sounds of wind whooshing, electric guitar, and extremely fast drums create an even more chaotic atmosphere as Ocean sings about walking the line between life and death, heaven and hell. Walking these lines of duality so finely is very stressful and chaotic, thus the eclectic production. However, Ocean thinks that the sides he’s on are “Pretty Sweet.”
“Facebook Story” is a skit spoken by “SebastiAn,” a French producer with a heavy accent. In the song, SebastiAn tells the story of a three year long relationship in which he was accused of infidelity because he wouldn’t accept his partner on Facebook. The story is framed by the same gentle electronic piano seen throughout the rest of “Blonde.” It acts as a commentary on the importance that humanity places on social media, often forging it into a crucial part of their identity. SebastiAn’s partner sees him every day and is constantly with him, yet places so much importance on his online presence that she allows it to influence her opinion of him and his loyalty. It is meant to be a lesson from Ocean, cautioning us on how much of our lives we base in social media.
Close To You
“Close To You” is a choppy cover of the Stevie Wonder song of the same name, and also samples The Carpenter’s version of the song. It ironically follows the song “Facebook Story,” in which one partner wanted to be close to the other digitally- whereas here, Ocean is craving a physical presence. With this track, Ocean uses a “Prismizer” effect to distort and layer his vocals, making them appear as though they are harmonious. Among this choppy sampling, dreamy production and vocals, he expresses disappointment towards a former lover for not being there for him following their breakup.
However, he acknowledges the futility of his expression, singing, “why am I preaching/ to this choir, to this atheist?” Ocean knows his words are spoken in vain, yet he says them anyways. The words, now deemed meaningless by both parties, seem to dissolve among the whimsical production and float into the air, bringing him no satisfaction.
The title “White Ferrari” could act as a symbol for the relationship described in this song. White, because it is pure and genuine- and because of this, it is extremely rare and desired, similar to an expensive ferrari. However, despite this, the relationship still ends, as all things sadly do. Among the song’s romantic, swelling synth, Ocean talks about the perfection of this relationship and its eventual demise.
As the tempo of the beat shifts and changes, it reflects the lyrical themes of impermanence. Towards the end of “White Ferrari,” Ocean’s vocals rise and layer over each other and his words take on a more poetic quality and structure. “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension,” he sings wistfully, musing that perhaps in another time and place, love would be more concrete.
“Seigfried” has a very complex structure and narrative, filled with historical allusions and metaphors, mostly rooted in the warrior/hero Siegfried in Norse mythology. Ocean uses the traditional bravery of Siegfried to parallel his own lack of bravery. He transitions from speaking of his love life, to his inner life, then back to his love life, all the while weaving his life choices and thoughts about God into his writing. Mostly, the song is about reformation. Ocean’s complex, poetic lyrics are sung over gentle guitar, synth, and the occasional violin: the perfect, calm backdrop for Ocean’s philosophical musings and worries that are oftentimes frantic. “I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here/ maybe I’m a fool/ maybe I should move and settle/ two kids and a swimming pool,” sings Ocean, expressing his fear and inability to find a stereotypically “perfect” place in society.
And then, he nearly screams, “I’m not brave!”, challenging the traditional view of what it means to be brave and criticizing himself for not being able to fit into traditional societal expectations. As his orchestral production swells, building the intensity of the song, Ocean mutters, “This is not my life/ It’s just a fond farewell to a friend,” reflecting his discomfort with these societal norms and vowing not to comply with them. In Seigfried’s last two verses, Ocean raps about the fragility of life, a consistent theme in “Blonde,” before allowing the soft vocals and production of the outro to slowly bring the song to an end.
“Godspeed” is an emotional nod to Ocean’s childhood and former lovers- or to listeners, simply the past in general. Ocean purposely made the title of the song a word that is typically used to wish someone good luck on a journey. As poignant piano notes build around more ethereal synthesizer, Ocean once again builds a wall of sound only to shatter it once again with his powerful voice, singing “I will always love you, how I do/ let go of a prayer for you.” As the song progresses, Ocean vows to never stop loving whom/whatever he is bidding farewell, wishing them “godspeed” and “glory.”
Blonde’s impassioned closing track, “Futura Free,” is divided into two parts split by silence. Part one is a long-winded rap in which he raps about his religion, fame, and sexuality, and includes references to musical legends Tupac Shakur and Selena. This commentary is backed by slowly-building piano notes, possibly paralleling Ocean’s building career and come up over the last few years. It also includes emotion-provoking, nostalgic bars such as, “sometimes I feel like a god but I’m not a god,” which references Ocean’s hyper-devoted fanbase, and “Tyler slept on my sofa, yeah (…) go back that far,” referencing long-time friend and musical collaborator Tyler the Creator.
Careful with his choice of words and references, Ocean uses his poignant lyricism and slow-building production to create an emotional, nostalgic atmosphere that closes out “Blonde” perfectly. Futura Free’s second part is a chopped old clip of an interview he conducted on his younger brother, Ryan Breaux, and members of skate collective Illegal Civilization. The interview is backed by emotional piano and filled with the sound of the genuine laughter of the young kids, randomly interbroken by static that suggests a distortion of time. In the interview, the kids talk about their first memories, ideal super powers, and best qualities.
These topics are relatively elementary, but feature many emotion-provoking lines that contribute to the song’s extremely nostalgic atmosphere. The song, and the album itself, ends with perfect closing lines: “How far is a lightyear, how far is a lightyear?/ A second, a thousand years?” With this line, Ocean ends his story and metaphorically asks listeners how far have we come, and how far will we go?