Before I start, I want to offer two disclaimers:
1) Any negativity in this review isn’t based around Blonde by Frank Ocean being a “bad” album. It’s obviously not that. In fact, any negativity in this review mostly comes from…
2) I loved Channel Orange so much. I said on Twitter a couple of months ago that I couldn’t think of an album I liked more in the last ten years, and I stand by that.
So, with those two disclaimers in mind I have to say, Blonde by Frank Ocean… I dunno, man.
We’ve waited four years for Blonde, and during that time all we’ve heard is what a masterpiece this was. Ocean has been working on it for years apparently, just honing it until he thought it was right.
You can kind of tell in what was released that it’s been slaved over. You feel like every single part of it was heavily considered and edited until it was “perfect”. Every second has been worked on until it is artistically as brilliant as it can be.
So why, then, does it somehow still manage to feel both over-edited and under-edited?
The former of that seemingly oxymoronic statement is something I think we can all fall in to from time to time. It can be something as banal as writing a birthday message in a card for someone at work. The more you pour over every single word to get the best, most impactful version of what you are doing, the further you’re taking it from what it’s actually supposed to be. It’s like the joke in Friends when Joey uses a thesaurus on every single word of a letter he’s writing, including signing off his name as “baby kangaroo”. By making the pieces as great as they can be, you can lose sight of what you’re actually trying to say.
The latter part is something I’ve talked about both in my review of Narcos and of Life of Pablo by Kanye West. We’ve reached a point where we seem to think that great creativity = creative freedom. Producers, both in music and television, are now being made to feel as though the less input they give the better. The artist is the artistic one, let them “realise their vision” and all of that.
The result of this is we are increasingly seeing these “epic masterpieces” that feel half-cooked yet overwrought. Part of the creative process is to have someone with cold eyes looking over a piece of work and saying “I’m not emotionally invested in this and am therefore neutral, here is what you are doing well and here is what you aren’t”.
With Ocean’s “masterpiece”, I can’t help but feel like it could have done with someone looking at it and saying “I respect what you’re doing here, but I don’t love it”.
That’s the key point for me when listening to this. I’ve now listened to it four times since it came out trying to discover what I really thought about it. I wanted to love it. I thought it was my fault that I didn’t fall in love with it, like I just don’t get it. I’ve waited for that moment for it to really click with me, in the way Konnichiwa by Skepta or Life of Pablo did on repeated listening.
But honestly? That moment hasn’t come. I totally respect what he’s going for, but do I think I’ll still be listening to it in a year’s time? Probably not. It’s kind of like the most recent Radiohead album A Moon Shaped Pool in that way. Love the artistry, don’t love the songs.
Again, this isn’t to say it’s bad. Just because I can listen to the 20/20 Experience Part One by Justin Timberlake repeatedly and not this, do I think that makes 20/20 quote/unquote “better”? No, not really. But it stops me getting that emotional connection to it.
“But hang on” you might say. “Something like The 20/20 Experience by someone like Justin Timberlake is completely different to Blonde by Frank Ocean. You can’t compare the two, they’re not trying to do the same thing”.
That’s a fair point. But artistic merit and enjoyment don’t have to on opposite ends of the Venn diagram. There are songs in this album, like “Nikes”, “Solo”, and especially “Solo (Reprise)” (good God I love Andre 3000) that do manage to cover both aspects. I really like “Facebook Story” as well. It’s doable in this album, but only in limited places.
As a counter-point, take To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. It was universally praised as one of the best albums of last year, and artistically it can’t be knocked. But it’s also incredibly listenable and enjoyable. It’s a great work of art that is also something I want to listen to. I go back to it every now and again because I want to hear it again.
As much as I might not want it to be the case, I just don’t see that happening with Blonde.
Rating: 9/10 on artistic merits, 7/10 on enjoyment factor, we’ll call it a 7.851362. Out of 11.
Check back in every Monday for the latest reviews, plus the odd one on random days of the week as well. Hey, like this one!
You can follow me on Twitter here, where I make sweeping declarations about things being the best of the decade without really considering the alternatives.