The number one question that some of music’s most of-the-moment stars seem to have asked themselves this year was a simple one: You’ve won the entire world’s attention — now what are you going to do with it? Owing to an ever increasing swirl of think pieces and social media, celebrated music in 2016 has to make the listener talk as much as dance. Albums this year have seemed deliberately divisive, mishmashes of provocative sounds, experimental structures, creative rollouts, and identity politics. First, Rihanna, better known as a blockbuster hitmaker than an artiste, released the maddening Anti, an elusive bohemian meditation on toxic anxieties and an exercise in psychoanalytic self-reflection. Then, in February, Kanye released The Life of Pablo, an intentionally unfinished masterpiece that he continued to update throughout the year, deconstructing the entire idea of the album. In April, Beyoncé used the power of her fame to super-charge Lemonade, a film and album constructed as a troubling fable about marriage, infidelity, and redemption, with allusions to the entire history of black womanhood in America.
If that sounds like a lot, a tornado of hashtags and high hopes, it is. To whom much has been given, much is being demanded. But Frank Ocean is stepping, if carefully, right into this storm of huge expectations — one he helped brew with his lauded 2012 album, Channel Orange. Since that Grammy-winning record, a collection of witty, plainspoken songs about drugs, love, and the spiritual void of wealth, he has been the target of intense interest, plus a hilariously agitated online campaign to force him to hurry up and release a follow-up. He’s mostly kept out of sight, occasionally chumming the waters with hints about a new project. Now Blonde (or Blond; it’s officially being spelled both ways) has finally been released, and it turns out to be an album in no small part concerned with ambitions and expectations. It’s an inside look at an unruly head-trip: watching the world wait for you to have something, anything, to say.
The rollout to Blonde also includes a film called Endless; a lush cinematic score to that film; and a zine packaged with the album and given away at pop-up stores across the country (tucked into it is a poem about McDonald’s by Kanye and gorgeous photos by art-world hero Wolfgang Tillmans). But where Blonde excels in sheer ambition, it doesn’t always succeed in focus: There are seventeen songs (the last track lasts over nine minutes), and though many of them are engaging — first single “Nikes” is legitimately buzzing, with a fantastic music video directed by photographer of the moment Tyrone Lebon — none are as plainly cutting in social commentary or as downright bopping as the best tracks from Channel Orange.
On “Pink + White,” Ocean invites Beyoncé to sing with him only to hide her voice (the most valuable lungs in music) in harmonies at the tail end of the song, a street-cred-ensuring but unsatisfying move. André 3000 has a powerful guest interlude about halfway through the album, but it’s followed by a torrentially noisy track (“Pretty Sweet”) that is all idea and no execution. The album is, in that respect, reminiscent of 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean’s impressionistic, loose debut mixtape, which found him tinkering with Eagles and Radiohead samples and singing freely from the heart before all that many people knew his name.
In its way, Blonde thrives on its own unfiltered murkiness: Ocean has long pitched himself as above (or below, depending on how you look at it) the glitzy superficiality of the fame industry, and with the new album, he suggests that, no matter how high the fever pitch around him, he’s going to make the music he wants to make. That music is experimental and expressive, woven through with straightforward folk and indie rock, distortion, even gospel soul. Songs will pivot on a dime, as if he had so many ideas that one style just wouldn’t suffice: “Nikes,” for instance, is thematically divided into two songs, both thrilling in their own way. The first half finds Ocean’s voice pitched Chipmunk-high, rapping about materialism and the death of Trayvon Martin; the second features Ocean crooning about spiritual peace and hippie enlightenment.
That split sensibility echoes throughout Blonde. One of the album’s keystones is a recording of a voicemail of a mother telling her child not to drink or do drugs, pitched almost comically over Muzak as if to say her pleas are falling on deaf ears. “Pink + White” frames romantic relationships first as profound, then as ultimately fleeting; in “Solo,” Ocean narrates a drug-fueled journey toward self-discovery, only to suggest at song’s end that he feels isolated and alone. On “Seigfried,” a simple track with muted guitar and clear vocals, Ocean wonders whether he should’ve just bought a house in the suburbs, popped out a couple of kids, and called it a day. “Maybe I’m a fool/Maybe I should move,” he sings, in a melody full of glittering indecision. “I’m not brave.”
So, then, if this is an album explicitly about expectations and the question of ever meeting them, maybe we should heed its underlying message: Pop artists definitely aren’t gods; they aren’t even philosopher kings and queens. Perhaps Blonde is Ocean’s ploy to lower the temperature of anticipation around him so that from here on out he can make music for a devoted group of fans who will love him no matter what. For all its meandering, Blonde could be the soundtrack for the doubts of his own age group — whether those are about student debt, creative fulfillment, or just growing up. We don’t always live up to what people want from us, and sometimes we don’t even want to. “I ain’t a kid no more,” he sings on “Ivy.” “We’ll never be those kids again.” And that’s right: Ocean can’t ever again be the little-known artist with the blank slate, though Blonde sounds like the surest step back to that place that an artist of his caliber could make.