Albums of the Year 2016: #3 Frank Ocean – blond

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blond released on the back of a lot of hype earlier this year, and it’s easy for that amount of expectation to warp either the quality or the reception of a record. You have to give it to Frank Ocean for managing to come out with such a fantastic release even despite all the talk surrounding it: this record feels more mature, more varied and more cohesive than his previous material, and represents a real musical evolution.

Let’s start with more mature. The production on blond is fantastic – lush, detailed and atmospheric. Each track really stands apart from the others, and many songs like ‘Nikes’ and ‘Nights’ contain instrumental transitions that provide a lot of new ideas. Frank’s voice has developed a lot too, and goddamn does he know how to write a sweet melody. Some of the tracks towards the albums end are very instrumentally minimal, but he carries each one off the strength of his vocal performances alone.

Broadly, you could classify this album as introspective alternative R&B, but a number of tracks contain elements of folk, neo-psychedelia and soul. This is what I mean by more varied: blond experiments with a lot of different styles and sounds across its runtime. Tonally, as well, there is a lot of variety. From the killer first three tracks, which provide a perfectly sexy and psychedelic intro to the record, to some of the more single-worthy songs in the middle (‘Solo’, ‘Nights’) to the quiet, introspective finish, blond has a real emotional arc to be found in its song progression.

This progression gives blond a cohesion which makes it work well as an album and not just a collection of songs. Having said that, though, there are some fantastic individual tunes here, too. Opener ‘Nikes’ is among the albums best – that wobbly bass and slow, sexy drumline is such an inviting way to start the album. And the lyrics in the songs heartfelt second half are very moving, as is Frank’s singing.

‘Pink and White’ is a slice of gloriously trippy, wide eyed funk which sounds like sipping cocktails on a sunlit beach, and ‘Solo’ which follows shortly after is a neo-gospel ode to the pleasures and pains of being by yourself, filtered through a heavy cloud of weed smoke. As on channel ORANGE, many of these songs are a lyrical blend of Frank’s personal life and created stories which have a real cinematic quality to them.

‘Nights’, which is perhaps my favourite song on the album, also has this quality. The first half of the track tells a bleak story about a young parent who has to work night shifts in order to make ends meet, and the backdrop is an absolutely killer hip-hop instrumental with an unusual, chopped up kind of bell sound. The second half of the track, though, switches up to an atmospheric trap swirl, full of sticky keyboards and crooning vocals. It’s a fantastic transition that gets me every time I hear it.

There are some low points, too. A couple of the interlude tracks get a bit annoying on repeated listens, particularly ‘Be Yourself’ which I skip every time, and the run of tracks in between ‘Nights’ and ‘White Ferrari’ are among the albums weakest, with ‘Close To You’ and ‘Pretty Sweet’ both being pleasant but unsubstantial.

Other than that, though, I have nothing but good things to say about blond. Kudos to Frank for putting together one of the years very best albums even despite all the hype.

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