When Frank Ocean’s long-awaited new album, Blonde, arrived Saturday evening, it was right on time. Fans had been assured the Channel Orange follow-up was coming earlier this month, and they rejoiced; then, like characters in a painfully modern Beckett play, they waited, refreshing Twitter and cold-calling Apple stores. On the album’s closing track, “Futura Free,” Frank answers for the two-week limbo and then some:
I ain’t on your schedule
I ain’t on no schedule
I ain’t had me a job since 2009.
While that passage speaks to Ocean’s life as a superstar, his record is tailored for August’s dog days in broader, more accessible ways. Blonde is about summer, and specifically the summers of your youth: lonely and crowded, lazy but brief, performative and yet painfully real. A voicemail from his mother (“Be Yourself”) even frames itself as advice to a young Frank as he sets out for his first semester of college. Coupled with the sentimentality of “Ivy”—“I ain’t a kid no more/ We’ll never be those kids again/ It’s not the same”—that message pins the album perfectly in time.
That doesn’t mean the ideas presented are trite, or childish, or not worth revisiting for those now swimming in student debt. It simply means that Blonde is best processed through lenses that reject cynicism. Insecurity runs rampant—frantic Instagram scrolling, half-truths on iMessage, too much cocaine—but Ocean engages with his emotions earnestly and above board, and suggests that you should, too.
Ocean can be a very specific writer, and a very perceptive one. On “Nights,” the phrase “beaucoup family” hints at the fact the singer, born Christopher Breaux, grew up in New Orleans, which celebrates its French roots at every turn. That song also marks time by tracking his family’s Acura ownership. Ocean does the does the same on “Ivy” (the BMW X6) and “Futura” (a Lexus, model unclear). Sometimes, that specificity is absolutely devastating, like on “Nikes,” which contains one of Ocean’s most inspired burst of writing yet: “That my little cousin, he got a little trade/ His girl keep the scales, a little mermaid/ We out by the pool.”
Ocean’s always been more pop omnivore than R&B purist, which works to his advantage even more now that he has a presumably enormous budget at his disposal. (One shudders to think how much a Beatles sample, even one as minor as the borrowed line on “White Ferrari,” costs to clear.) Credited appearances by Beyonce (“Pink + White”) and Kendrick Lamar (“Skyline To”) are so minor that they amount to little more than stunt casting. “Ferrari,” by contrast, is unavoidably The James Blake Song.
The summers Frank Ocean chases on Blonde are fleeting, and he’s acutely aware of it.
The marquee guest is Andre 3000, whose superb verse on “Solo (Reprise)” is unfortunately backed by the album’s worst bit of production—a forgettable piano piece. That track gives way to Blonde’s two major missteps: “Pretty Sweet,” which suggests Ocean might have been listening to The Love Below a little too much, and “Facebook Story,” where the French electronic musician SebastiAn complains that a girl he was dating asked him to add her on Facebook; when he refuses, he says she “started to be crazy,” which is not only totally unreasonable but badly misreads the rest of the album’s take on the digital-physical divide. The median Frank Ocean fan equates an Instagram comment to an in-person remark far greater than the average Stevie Wonder fan would. To the same point, Blonde’s rollout, which includes the 45-minute “visual album” Endless, is inextricable from the work itself.
The summers Frank Ocean chases on Blonde are fleeting, and he’s acutely aware of it. The album’s best songs—”Nights,” which is split between two different eras of his life, and the first version of “Solo”—are even spirituals of a sort. The former taunts those who had to be left behind (“Did you call me from a seance?/ You are from a past life/ Hope you’re doing well bruh”) and laughs off domesticity as “that Kumbaya shit.” The latter details one of those magic moments on the sidewalk outside the club, but carries it through its disappointing conclusion on the ride home.
Both songs, thorough and unflinching, are at their core about how joy is something to be recognized and harnessed immediately—then let go, as it is, somewhat painfully, on “Godspeed.” As much as Frank Ocean travels back and forth through time, the summer will have to do.