Blonde, one of two new albums (finally) delivered by Frank Ocean this weekend, will leave an emotional lump in your throat. Its melancholy mood and airy atmospherics conjure up Channel Orange—Ocean’s Grammy-winning debut—while leaning in an even more esoteric direction. And if Blonde mostly gives the mainstream a middle finger, the Apple Music-only “visual album” Endless totally abandons any claims to urban radio after opening with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “(At Your Best) You Are Love.” Like R&B cousins of Kanye’s The Life of Pablo imagined as a disconnected double-album, Blonde and Endless break Ocean’s four-year silence with eclectic style.
On the Pharrell-produced “Pink + White,” featuring Beyoncé on some outro background harmonizing, Ocean poetically weaves sex and drugs into a larger narrative of losing control with a lover from his past. With a piano-powered hook, peek-a-boo jangly guitar and dreamy, nostalgic vocals (“You showed me love/Glory from above”), it deserves to be Blonde’s biggest hit. Except for “Nikes.” In a processed, high-pitched voice that floats on clouds by song’s end, he jumps from gold-digging women to eulogizing A$AP Yams, Pimp C and Trayvon Martin to rolling joints to begging affection from a lover. The effect is hypnotic sadness, the overall vein of the whole album.
Blonde’s rock references aren’t overt, but almost. Ocean quotes the Beatles on “White Ferrari” (a possible titular nod to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” in itself); his title recalls Bob Dylan’s 1966 classic Blonde on Blonde; songs like “Night” and “White Ferrari” feature Paul McCartney-like movements (think “Pyramids” from Channel Orange); he covers the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by way of Stevie Wonder; and takes sonic liberties in general like Blonde was a soul version of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds—an inspiration he’s already copped to. The album’s too experimental for an Album of the Year Grammy, but he won’t lose for not speaking their language.
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With Blonde and Endless, loss and longing are the themes he mines most. (Cars are a close third: he mentions BMWs, Acuras, Ferraris, Lexuses, Porsches and more throughout both albums. Bisexuality is a close fourth). And with his return to the pop firmament, the reclusive singer proves he remains just as major as any Beyoncé, Rihanna or Kanye you care to name.