“Where’s the album, Frank?”
That’s the question Frank Ocean fans have been asking since 2014, when he announced his second album, “Blonde.” A far cry from his 2012 debut, “Channel Orange,” which was a quirky and endearing R&B pastiche, “Blonde” makes Ocean inaccessible to the public. False release dates, misleading Tumblr posts, and name changes all contributed to one of the most anticipated and confusing releases in pop music history.
Now that it’s finally here, even the most diehard devotees will have trouble deciphering the album’s meaning until they realize that the album is not about the music — it’s about Frank Ocean as an art piece. Ocean no longer makes music either for the fans or for himself, he makes music because it is an extension of his own private persona. Unless, listeners accept that the album is an inseparable part of a tantalizing and inaccessible artist, they cannot hope to understand “Blonde,” much less enjoy it.
“Blonde” is a groundbreaking experience, an album so wrapped in the question of an artist’s place in society that it effectively isolates the artist from his audience and alienates the audience from the art. Instead of relating his worldview to the world — as artists of all mediums tend to do — Ocean shies away from presenting anything.
That’s not to say that the music of “Blonde” is bad, at least in a technical sense. Throughout the work, Ocean channels his voice through filters, and sometimes makes it sound almost inhuman. Since he didn’t provide a complete list of featured artists, and we hear multiple iterations of his voice, it’s sometimes impossible to tell if it is him or an unknown featured artist singing.
It’s not only the music that’s alienating. “Blonde” was released alongside a short video and a magazine that features everything from cars to a poem by Kanye West about french fries. The video is equally perplexing. It shows Ocean, alone, building a staircase that leads to nowhere as scratchy lo-fi music plays in the background. Such theatrics indicate not an artist creating an art piece to reflect the world to his audience, but a man so wrapped up in himself that anything he presents to the world will only reflect his own solipsism.
Of course, he’s not the first artist to do something like this. Kanye West’s most recent album,“The Life of Pablo,” was a multimedia fiasco that let his fans peer into his narcissism. Like “Blonde,” “The Life of Pablo” didn’t reflect the world so much as it did the artist. But Ocean’s album isn’t the self-absorbed mess that West’s was. It’s just a peek into a reclusive mind.
Ocean makes no attempt to seduce, revile, or even please his audience with “Blonde” or its addenda. As far as the public will ever know, he’s incomprehensible and inaccessible. So of course his music would reflect that about him. And It’s perplexing. And weird. But at least it’s new.
All of this may sound like a terrible way to make music, but Ocean seems to have figured it out. For instance, on “Solo (Reprise)” his voice fades into the background and OutKast member Andre 3000 raps a few bars about the vicious and superficial nature of the music industry. Andre’s energy builds — it almost sounds like Ocean might come in and provide a chorus — but then Andre’s voice ceases abruptly, and Ocean submits his audience to 15 seconds of crackly silence before the next track begins. Even though the album is out he is still hiding, unwilling to give his fans the album experience they really want.
In the end, amid all its anti-pageantry and closeted fanfare, “Blonde” isn’t an album at all. It’s a flat refusal to demystify Frank Ocean that leaves us asking the same question we were when he started the project:
“Where’s the album, Frank?”