Image by Adam Mignanelli
Sluggish. Lazy. Stupid. Unconcerned. The words arrive in a voicemail interlude on Frank Ocean's new album Blond(e) as a warning of what happens to “weedheads.” It's dire stuff, even if it’s unclear if we’re really supposed to take it at face value, even if many of the songs that follow make drugs sound extremely sweet. But real weedheads (smash that MF like) know that these traits aren't generally so much the symptoms of drugs as they are the symptoms of the things that might lead you to whiling away an afternoon smoking weed in the first place. They are the results of feeling adrift and discontent—and nonetheless a warning.
We all go through these periods at some point in life (if you haven't, trust me: you will), where we get the sense that whatever plan we had for ourselves isn't working out the way we intended, that whatever bar for success we had set wasn't actually the key to happiness we had hoped it would be, that we are letting other people's benchmarks for life or impressions of who we are govern our behavior. We find that we are, as Frank Ocean sings, “living in an idea / an idea in another man's mind.” We find ourselves at parties describing who we are based on where we work.
Frank Ocean is, probably more than most of us, well acquainted with the idea of facing down versions of reality other people have imagined for him. He has spent the last four years with the burden of following up an album hailed as an instant classic, much of that time hounded by memes about said follow-up not being done, while also carrying the mantle of being the most prominent LGBTQ black musician in the world. One imagines the pressure to be immense. And Frank Ocean also, like the rest of us, faces more pedestrian expectations.
On “Good Guy,” a fraying sonic mumble over piano that forms the centerpiece of Blond(e), he relays a story of a series of well-intentioned misconceptions that happen with a blind date. Frank sounds bemused by the pigeonholing of the date taking him to a gay bar and disappointed by the date's expectations for the night; but on his end he realizes he'd expected a different looking guy and that the date talks “so much more than I do.” Romance, and life itself, tends to involve a series of scattershot projections about just who, exactly, people are, the song suggests. And, since we're constantly on the receiving end of this dynamic, too, no wonder we find ourselves feeling not in control.
Still from Endless
What does one do when faced with such a dilemma? Well, our pal Frank Ocean certainly isn't out here with idle hands fretting about it when he could be building staircases, as he does in Blond(e)'s immediate precursor, the visual album Endless. Nor is he shying away from the question when he's tackling the Challenges of Human Existence head-on with Blond(e), an album that muses about what it means, as that voicemail track also suggests, to “be yourself,” to “be secure with yourself,” and to “rely and trust upon your own decisions, on your own beliefs.” We are always in the process of negotiating with our identities and the ones other people choose to single out for us, with our pasts and our possible futures. Insofar as there is a healthy way to do that, Frank seems to offer, it is in determining a personal reality that supersedes external markers and reconciles internal multiplicities. Blond(e) is interested in that physical process of determination, the endless (wait a minute—hmmmmmmm…) task of self-definition and self-improvement.
Now, perhaps this doesn't seem like much of a goal: Our generation, with our selfies, always thinking about ourselves, obsessing over who we are, la di da. But I don't think you even need to get to “Facebook Story,” the linchpin track in this discussion, to realize that that type of millennial self-regard is precisely what Frank Ocean finds so detrimental and confounding. Online is a place where we spend an awful lot of time projecting ourselves in ways that are antithetical to self-examination. Social media rewards a flat, fixed understanding of a person's identity (i.e. a “personal brand”) rather than a constantly evolving sense of self (i.e. a “life”). Which maybe is fine! For a short time at least, definitely. You don't want to be Not Online, due to there is lots of good stuff online, such as two Frank Ocean albums. But then, as “Facebook Story” suggests, it can really suck when virtual life, with its general lack of nuance, zebra mussels its way into the pool and messes up the already delicate ecosystem of regular existence.
Blond(e) is full of other such oppositions, beginning with the gendered uncertainty over the spelling of its title and and extending into the constant juxtaposition of heavily processed, electronic production and totally stripped down acoustic recordings: “Pretty Sweet” is a song that seems to exist largely to answer the question of what would happen if you put a drum 'n' bass break under a children's choir, while “Self Control” squeaks and strums and soars into a pealing guitar solo (that sounds maybe like a vocoder?) in the same way any heart caught in the throes of jealously is prone to do. It's an album that is torn between pastoral visions and urban environments, solitude and companionship, clear-eyed psychedelic revelation and clear-eyed sobriety. Throw gradations of race and sexuality, those old standbys, in there, too. Roads aren't just asphalt; they're a contrast of “black and yellow.” Clouds are a bull and a matador dueling in the sky. In these binaries there's a push and pull, but mostly, upon closer examination, there's a collapse. Time folds in on itself, light hang glides off the moon, those clouds dissolve into someone blowing smoke alone.
A question emerges over the course of these destabilizations: What makes something real? Andre 3000 takes a couple stabs at the idea: “Over half of these hoes had work done / Sayin' they want something real from a man” he muses before sniping at rappers with ghostwriters. From the beginning, the reality of Frank Ocean seems thrown into question: I had to check my speakers the first time I listened to “Nikes” to confirm the voice modulation was intentional because the opening few minutes of the album—gorgeous, profound, bursting into that “woooo” and decaying into noise—didn't sound like Frank.
Part of the point of asking questions about what is real, to get back to that pesky staircase and the whole self-examination thing, is that even to ourselves, our ideas of who we are—i.e. what is real to us—are constantly being proven wrong. Maybe we accord specific significance to parts of our childhoods (“Pink + White”) or young adulthoods (“Nights”) that then we begin to relate to less. Maybe we move to a new place and think of ourselves as the kind of person who enjoys a specific drive (“Skyline To”). Maybe we become obsessed with a new musician and attach ourselves to that or witness the extrajudicial killing of a young black boy and begin to understand ourselves more explicitly in the context of race (“Nikes”). Maybe we date someone and start to project our ideas of who they are onto ourselves (“Ivy”). Who we are is a constantly shifting patchwork of these elements. Each day, ideally, we wake up and go about the process of shaping them into a useful understanding of ourselves.
Which is what, other than those dang stairs and an aesthetically breathtaking album, Frank Ocean manages to do put together. It’s a simple emotional reality—“I will always love you,” he sings in a soaring beam of vocal energy at the beginning of “Godspeed”—but it wipes away all those chameleonic ones that came before. It resolves out into the closing statement of “Futura Free,” where he flexes a few more markers of who he is in a giddy, distinctly self-assured rap, channeling fellow New Orleanian Lil Wayne. This simple humanism, this clearly articulated reality, is what draws so many people to Frank Ocean, what makes people so impatient for his music, what makes that music so easy to deeply, personally identify with no matter who you are. And all that stems from a pretty simple idea: Spend some time in contemplation.
In this way (and others, surely) life is art. And art is craftsmanship, and craftsmanship is—as one might learn by, say, building a staircase—a constant refinement through repetition of the same actions. Blond(e) is an album that leaves you wanting to embrace these principles wholeheartedly and then go out and make something beautiful, be more like Frank, get away from societal burdens and give some small offering to the idea of becoming your best self. You leave with the album’s parting questions ringing in your ears: “What do you do?” he asks. What do you want to be?
Kyle Kramer's first draft was just him quitting and moving to the woods. Follow him on Twitter.