Ambiguous and contradictory, Blonde is like all of us
Frank Ocean last week released his long awaited album Blonde along with the magazine Boys Don’t Cry, following numerous delays and a great deal of anticipation. And he certainly didn’t disappoint.
Blonde, a nostalgic reflection on the absurdity of love in the twenty-first century, received rave reviews and has hogged the social media spotlight since its release. Yet, “Blonde” is as perplexing and cryptic as it is artfully produced. For starters, the album is spelled in two different ways—Blonde on iTunes and blond on the cover art. The ambiguous use of gender pronouns, the various voice effects and the frequent abstruse imagery also make the album particularly difficult to digest. But despite its complexity, Ocean has managed to create a work that is both intensely musical and coolly clairvoyant.
In a Tumblr post accompanying the album release, Ocean writes, “Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years…Maybe that part had its rough sketches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good.” When listening to the album, this statement makes perfect sense. Ocean reflects on his past without allowing it to obstruct his view of the present. This is not a break-up album, but rather a contemplation of the way past love and experience shape and reshape the present. And while he spends much more time in the past tense than in the present, he nonetheless wonders about the important questions with a clear, unfaltering tone.
Describing his affairs with both men and women throughout the album, he asks if there is an easier way: “Maybe I should move, settle down, [with] two kids and a swimming pool.” At the same time, he points out the absurdities of twenty-first-century life by way of referencing the Trayvon Martin shooting and the deterioration of human relationships as a result of Facebook culture.
From a musical standpoint, Ocean underscores the paradoxes of the past and present with taped voice recordings and irregular track groupings that make Blonde feel more like a concept album à la Pink Floyd than a contemporary rap record. But while Ocean makes frequent use of voice effects, he also doesn’t shy away from unaltered vocals when necessary, demonstrating his remarkable aptitude for bluesy R&B lines. And in the midst of such an irregular musical flow, Ocean still manages to show off his lyrical prowess, a worthy challenge to any rapper recording today.
Despite its instant popularity and widespread media coverage, Blonde has received relatively little attention from the LGBT media. This is perhaps due to the complexity of the album and the way Ocean addresses his sexuality in it, both of which make it difficult to put his sexuality into any kind of easily recognizable box. (Ocean uses the word “gay” only one time in the album and did not use any such word when he came out publicly.) Ocean’s relationships with both men and women appear alternately throughout. And while it is clear that Ocean intended to illustrate both scenarios, he revels in the lyrical ambiguity, further augmented by the alternate spellings of the album title and the mysterious “E” appearing beside certain tracks and not others.
Etymologically speaking, “blond” and “blonde” are variants of the same adjective, representing the masculine and feminine forms respectively. So then, Ocean may be drawing a distinction between the masculine (self) and feminine (other) elements in his songs, adding an “E” beside those that mostly talk about his relationships with females and leaving the space beside the others blank. This would certainly explain why the title on the album cover with his photo would be spelled “blond.” Likewise, one might also wonder if the various voice effects he uses are somehow supposed highlight the conflict between self and otherness, or if they perhaps represent the voices inside his head. And, it is precisely this kind of speculation that makes Blonde so enjoyable.
Blonde, like Frank Ocean, and like all of us, is filled with ambiguities, irregularities and contradictions. Yet, it is able to speak to us both through them and in spite of them. Frank Ocean’s new album encourages us to think of the past, not as a barrier, but as a point of departure and introspection. Like any work of art, it asks us to examine ourselves not once, but twice—to reflect not only on where we came from but also on how that will bear on where we are going, even if “summer’s not as long as it used to be.”