We all knew that Frank Ocean's highly anticipated follow-up to Channel Orange would be a surprise affair. The unannounced album is the lingua franca of pop in 2016, if not this decade. Still, the singer-songwriter formerly known as Christopher Breaux managed to wring some twists out of what has become a familiar marketing strategy. Early Friday morning, August 19th, he unveiled a 45-minute short film, Endless, on Apple Music with no prior warning, and with the promise of more music to come. Then on Saturday morning, he presented a video clip for "Nikes," a weird mélange of neon visuals and beautiful naked bodies. That evening, he delivered the main course – or two, if you happened to make it to one of four pop-up shops where he distributed free copies of his Boys Don't Cry lookbook. Those magazines contained a CD version of his new album, Blonde, that has a different track sequence than the one that appeared on Apple Music at the same time.
The result is two new albums (and a half?) for the Frank Ocean fan to digest. However, the soundtrack to the Endless film seems like an impressionistic collage of demos, with tracks that fade out too quickly and a few sustained highlights. Meanwhile, Blonde sounds like the real deal. Sonically, it has the same contemplative and poetic tone as Ocean's lionized 2012 debut. In fact, it is so meditative that there are few beats at all; most of the Apple Music version is just gauzy laptop washes, pianos, laconically strummed guitars and his voice. He seems to have stripped himself to his bare thoughts, some of which he expresses inchoately. On "Close to You," he manipulates his vocals with odd effects so that they sound like a blur. Other times, he sings in cryptic verse. "Bad luck to talk on these rides/Mind on the road/Yet dilated eyes/Watch the clouds float/White Ferrari/Had a good time," he says on "White Ferrari."
R&B fans may grouse that, much like its predecessor, Apple Music labeled Blonde as "Pop." But unlike Channel Orange and its Seventies singer-songwriter stoned-soul tones, this truly sounds like a post-millennial pop record, from its computerized ambience to a diverse list of contributors that include French electro-house producer Sebastian (who tells a silly little tale on "Facebook Story") and a lyrical reference to Elliot Smith's "A Fond Farewell" on "Seigfried." The presence of Kim Burrell's gospel testimonial near the end of "Godless" feeds into the minor narrative of urban pop heroes like Chance the Rapper, Kanye West and others re-engaging with spirituality.
When his words are clear, Frank Ocean sings about youth and sensuality. "We're not kids no more," he sings over the Twin Peaks–like glow of "Ivy." He sounds brazenly erotic when he asserts on "Solo," "I'll be your boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight." But on one of the album's highlights, "Seigfried," he sings plaintively, "I couldn't gauge your fears/I can't relate to my peers/I'd rather live outside/I'd rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here." He offers only fleeting hints of what that sense otherness might mean, as on "Good Guy," a spare keyboard-and-voice interlude where he says to a date, "Here's to the gay bar you took me to."
As an hour-long drift into Ocean's consciousness, Blonde blooms with lush, beautiful moments like "Pink + White," which features a maternal, wordless backing vocal from Beyoncé. (Other high-profile guests on the LP include Andre 3000, who lays down dazzling rapid-fire rhymes on "Solo (Reprise)," and Kendrick Lamar, who echoes the singer with brief interjections on "Skyline To.") The album's melodic haze often threatens to blur into aimlessness. Yet Ocean convinces us to trust his vision of modern youth in a time where the world may lie at your fingertips, yet you can still be murdered if, as he sings on "Nikes," you look just like Trayvon Martin. And when he sings, "Maybe I'm a fool" on "Seigfried," his deep husk can't be interpreted as anything other than the sound of soul.