The Questions of Identity Hidden on Frank Ocean's 'Blonde'
    • WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 31, 2016

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    Frank Ocean clearly hasn't disappointed fans after releasing his long-awaited sophomore record, Blonde: It's been receiving critical praise from just about everyone, social media is in a frenzy over its majesty, and people are already reselling the physical copies found at Ocean's pop-up stores for stupid amounts of money. As for me, like any anti-social music writer who has nothing else better to do with their time, I locked myself in my room and played the record on repeat over the weekend to try and dissect all the hidden nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered. After some listening and research, here are the three biggest themes/ideas that stuck out to me on Blonde:

    Different Titles, Same Message
    It's probably a safe bet to think that with a meticulous and methodical artist like Ocean, everything he does with his music is intentional. However, to the casual onlooker, the news leading up to Blonde's release can seem a bit messy: First, it was speculated the album was called Boys Don't Cry, but that ended up being the accompanying magazine to Blonde. Then there was Endless, the visual album Ocean dropped literally right before Blonde, though that was most likely a loophole to escape his contract with Universal. And then the album itself has some interesting inconsistencies, like it being listed as "Blonde" while the album cover spells it like "Blond" and the physical copy having a different track listing and versions of songs than the digital copy. After listening to the album, which covers a lot of themes about identity and the struggle to be your genuine self, it could be argued that the multiple titles for this single record is in itself a commentary on the concept of identity. In the context of Ocean's own personal conflicts- Being a breakout star while wanting to live a private life, being an openly gay artist in a genre that's still fairly hetero-normative - the album's different variations and titles represent the fact that identity is something that isn't set in stone, but in fact changes and lies in a grey area for many people. There doesn't seem to be a "true" or "definitive" version of Ocean's new album, but that's exactly the point. Whether you call it Blonde, Blond, or even Boys Don't Cry, it's still the same Frank Ocean album with the same contemplative and deeply emotional music, regardless of the version you've heard.

    The Speaking Sections
    There are many stunning tracks and instrumentation on this album, which was already talked about a bunch in our album review, but the two outliers on the album for me were the speaking interludes, "Be Yourself" and "Facebook Story." The former is a voicemail left by Ocean's mom, sternly reminding him not to drink, do drugs, or try to be like everybody else, and the latter is an account by DJ and Producer SebastiAn about how an ex-girlfriend accused him of cheating for not accepting her friend request, even though he was literally right in front of her while this argument took place. These tracks may seem a bit random at first, especially with "Be Yourself" being followed by "Solo," which blatantly references dropping acid in the first verse, but I'd argue that they act as counterpoints to the same argument. On one hand, you have "Be Yourself," which literally says to be your own person, to not worry about what other people expect you to do. But on the other hand, you have "Facebook Story," which presents a rebuttal to consider: You can be true to yourself all you want, but what if the rest of the world isn't okay with that? How so you adjust when others perceive your differences as negative? These speaking sections act as pit stops within the album, pausing the music to make you stop and consider the two aspects of the self: What you mean to you vs. what you mean to everyone else. The music acts as Ocean's thoughts and opinions on this subject, but he doesn't seem to give a definite answer as to which side of his identity- the inner or outer self- he considers more important. Like with most music, it's ultimately up to the listener to decide what the answer is for themselves.

    "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"
    The long list of credits on Blonde ranged from those who actually featured on the album, like Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and Andre 3000, to some more unexpected names like the Beatles and Elliott Smith. However, I'd also argue that, whether or not it was intentional, Blonde shares a lot of musical and thematic parallels with Pet Sounds, the legendary album by the Beach Boys. Though the two records seem unrelated on the surface, they are fundamentally the deeply personal explorations of lost love, anxiety, depression, and life as an outlier made by their respective masterminds, Frank Ocean and Brian Wilson. With Pet Sounds, Wilson displayed an earnest representation of himself that wasn't necessarily seen by the public eye, taking the listener through various emotions, personal troubles, and vexing questions about love and purpose he felt on a given day. Ocean has done the same thing on Blonde, except his emotional journey seems to extend the course of several years rather than just a day, but covers the same existential territory Wilson covered fifty years ago. The albums' openers, "Nikes" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice," show Ocean and Wilson expressing their desire to live a life free of the materialistic superficiality of everyday life, setting the tone for their albums in the process. "Ivy" and "Self Control" are soul-bearing love songs that process the same deep, broken-hearted mix of longing and reverence as "God Only Knows" and "That's Not Me." "Solo," "Skyline Too," and "Nights" all show Ocean questioning his own worth and what it means to be "yourself" in a world where it's hard to do so, which are the same introspective questions Wilson pondered on tracks like "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" and "I Know There's An Answer."

    Even though the Beach Boys didn't make the album credits, Ocean had said in the past that he was listening to them while recording Blonde, so the connection to Pet Sounds may not be a huge stretch. Regardless, I found the similarities between both albums to be worth mentioning, especially since the backgrounds between Wilson and Ocean are pretty similar as well. Both men clearly know how to write a radio hit, but on these two records, Wilson and Ocean made bold and unconventional choices over the easy and expected route. With Pet Sounds, Wilson's creative risks resulted in an undisputed masterpiece that propelled the music world to where it is today. Blonde is still hot off the presses, so the jury's still out on whether it'll live up to the same level as Pet Sounds (although the bar is set pretty frickin high), and I'm not going to pretend that an album that's less than two weeks old is an instant classic. But given its current reception, and the trajectory of Ocean's overall career, it may be safe to assume that Blonde is going to have some lasting impact, or at the very least, offer listeners and fans a deeply personal glimpse into Ocean's life and thoughts you can't find anywhere else.

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