Why Frank Ocean's Vulnerability Is so Radical

'Blond(e)' is not the straightforward hip-hop, R&B, and funk of his previous records. It is music to speak truth to power, crafted solely to tell Ocean’s story.

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Aug 24 2016, 9:00am

Frank Ocean is rare. He is a visionary and a figure of the individualistic artist’s mind. In a music field that often prioritizes trend-chasing, Ocean has ignored any inclinations but his own. With Blond(e), his highly anticipated third solo album, he doubles down on the type of music he is most interested in making: quiet, contemplative, singular, and ultimately unclassifiable. This is not the straightforward hip-hop, R&B, and funk of his previous records. It is music to speak truth to power, crafted solely to tell Ocean’s story.

Blond(e) is deeply intimate and personal. Despite the number of collaborators, the album sounds pulled directly from him, as if he had been working on it in his bedroom and not studios across the globe with some of the world’s most famous musicians. In an R&B space that often sounds solely tied to other people and tends to concern itself with the intimacy derived from being with other people, Blond(e) is built from his interiority. It is not romantic, although there is romance.

Ocean speaks about love throughout the record, but it is not an album of the present. He is reflecting on what was, deciphering his interactions and coming to terms with the heft of his emotions. Lyrics feel less like carefully calculated lines and more like entries from a journal or the internal ramblings we have when we feel particularly distraught over incidents in our own lives. Other people are there to the extent that they drop in and out of his life.

Every song, even the intermittent sketches, has a true personal narrative quality to it. Album opener “Nikes” is a lyrical treatise on the trappings of materialism, a frequent subject in Ocean’s music. “Super Rich Kids” on Channel Orange was written from the perspective of the outsider looking in; “Nikes” appears written from the perspective of an insider chastising himself.

The video version of the single features conflicting voices, as if the narrator of the song is trying to stop himself from his newer impulses. “All you want is Nikes (Yeah) / But the real ones just like you (Tell these niggas) / Just like me (Tell these guys you ain't basic),” he sings. The track is one of the brighter moments of self-reflection on the record. The more the record progresses, the more Ocean turns inward. What starts with reflections on physical objects turns into reflections on Ocean himself and his relationship, itself an intangible thing, to be examined and dissected.

“Ivy,” one of the most straightforward tracks on Blond(e), has an acoustic, singer-songwriter structure. The lyrics flow one into the other, and Ocean’s pronunciation occasionally sounds like mumbled frustrations. The “you”s throughout the track never sound direct. Instead, they are more like a person talking to himself. “I thought that I was dreaming / When you said you loved me / It started from nothing,” Ocean sings. This is not Ocean speaking to a lost love so much as Ocean is speaking about that love, reflecting on that love, navigating that love, beating himself up over that love and ultimately finding redemption from the remnants of that love.

The only true feature on the record sounds distinctly solo, too. Ocean essentially gave Andre 3000 his own song on “Solo (Reprise).” It appears around halfway through the record and delineates the two sides of the record. It is important, too, that this feature is the continuation of “Solo,” from earlier on the album. Both tracks feature a solo performer with one instrument and touch on similar themes of what individualism means, whether in the presence of other people or as an artist creating.

“Pretty Sweet,” the next track, features layered harmonizing vocals and a choir of child-like voices toward the end. It is an upbeat song with a drum ‘n’ bass-like beat, a stark difference from the minimalistic singer-songwriter qualities of the previous half of the record. This represents Frank pulling himself out of the vacuum of his interiority. Not only is he letting other people in, he is letting other genres and sounds in as well. The moment is only temporary, though. The album loops back around to that solo aesthetic. A temporary break doesn’t pull away from what Ocean hopes to accomplish.

Besides Andre 3000, most of the collaborators—a list that ranges from James Blake to Beyoncé to Jazmine Sullivan—seem to fade into the background. Their touch, whether it is through production credits or through vocals, is almost tangential to the purpose of the project itself. This is not about who he works with or who he can feature on the record. There are no elements that aim to cross over to other genres or touch into the cultural musical zeitgeist. These are just people to help execute his vision. Like a visual artist of the highest order, Ocean is working with other people to culminate and execute his singular vision. Everyone is putting the parts together. Everyone is under the same impression: We’re doing this for Frank because we believe in Frank’s vision.

That is the reason why people are so drawn to Ocean, too. His music is not always the most sonically complex or dense. But he represents a form of artistry that feels missing elsewhere. His music—starting with the release of Channel Orange—sounds radically vulnerable and personal. He is never afraid to put himself out there (or if he is afraid, he does it because something internally compels him to do so).

On “Bad Religion,” from Channel Orange, Ocean used the opportunity to speak bluntly about his own life. “Bad Religion” was a peek into the Frank of the Future. And on Blond(e), we see that vulnerable tendency in its fullest scope. This is music that is made with the intention of expounding personal emotions from Ocean. Whether it connects to other people doesn’t seem to be the main goal. But the initial reactions from fans point to that outcome. It is because he is so real that people are drawn to his music. The personal is universal.

Britt Julious is a writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter.