Frank Ocean — Blonde ANALYSIS & REVIEW
Frank Ocean’s biggest downfall in this album was failing to create the necessary layers for a melody to thrive. We can discuss all we want about the moods and the settings that he means to create (which will indeed be discussed later), but regardless of the mood a hierarchy of layers must exist in order to create a dynamic piece of music.
Many of the melodies heard in Blonde fail to distinguish themselves from the overall texture. In songs such as “Nikes”, “Nights”, and “Close To You”, the melodic line has no real shape nor does it play any real part in the form of the song. A successful melody will always play a role in moving the music along, but Ocean rarely employed his melodies in that way. At times the melody was too random, such as in “Godspeed”, and even sometimes too monotonous, such as in “Good Guy”. The only two songs from the album that I scored higher than 35 in melodic intrigue were “Solo” (43) and “Solo (reprise)” (36). “Solo” was the only song on the album with a melodic line that traveled around with purpose, had truly memorable hooks, and gave the listener unique surprises. “Pink + White” and “White Ferrari” also had respectable intrigue in their melodies; they were only missing the all-important hook to latch onto.
It’s true that not every piece of music that utilizes a singer needs the melodic line to be in the vocals. However, throughout Blonde the instrumentation in the background was made from blocks of sound rather than lines (aside from “Pink + White” where the piano part completely drove the melody). The way Ocean set up his songs in this album, the part of the melody was a hole that was really meant be filled by Ocean’s voice. Most of the time, the hole was barely filled. Overall, the melodies were successful in one major aspect: they did not dismantle the other musical elements. Melody was never truly involved with the direction of the music, but it did not distract from the direction that the music took. In that way, there was nothing abhorrently wrong with what Ocean decided to do with the melody. There have been plenty of other R&B artists who have worked within this setting while creating much better melodies, but that was not in the cards with Ocean’s approach. There’s no question that he could write decent melodies, as evidenced in “Solo”, but he didn’t seem to have the will power to mess with the overall structure he created. To me, that was a mistake. The fact that the complacent melodies did indeed help with the overall mood of the album puts this category slightly above halfway to perfection.
On the surface, many of the harmonies employed on this album were very creative and served a good purpose. Indeed, four out of the first five songs in this album implemented some very neat progressions that fit the mood well. Then, from “Skyline To” all the way to “White Ferrari”, the harmony went into an unsuspecting lull. On my first listen, it all seemed rather cool and creative, but in listening to it again I realized that it all began to use the same tricks without keeping any energy. Sure, you can add chordal 7ths to any chord to create cool sonorities, and you can switch up the order in which you use them.
Throughout the middle of the album, though, this was all that was happening. Using those specific three chords in repetition works well for one song, but not for multiple songs in a row. It got to the point where there was no feeling of progression in “Pretty Sweet”, “Facebook Story”, and “Close To You”. In case you are wondering, I do not let songs such as “Facebook Story” off the hook due to its unconventional sounds or purpose. It was still a piece of music and could’ve had added more helpful underlying harmony (the underlying melody in “Facebook Story” was actually very neat and I wish it could’ve been longer). Anyways, the repetitive and quirky three chord loop worked well in “Pink + White”, but not so much when it got to “White Ferrari”. The album as whole needed more variety in the different ways to create creative chord progressions. “Seigfreid” returned back to a solid progression and the album finished out strong with its harmony. If I could describe harmony as being cool and lost at the same time, this album would be a great example.
Now comes the real reason to listen to this album: the sound itself. Here is where Frank Ocean thrives as a musician. He wants to give listeners a unique and satisfying sonic experience, and if nothing more that’s exactly what this album gives. Aside from a couple songs such as “Ivy” and “Good Guy” that lacked the push from their background textures to become compelling, every song on this album made incredible use of timbres. There were plenty of unique combinations of instrumental families, beautiful solo moments, and amazing transitions that kept the music alive and fresh.
At its best in “Pink + White” and “Seigfreid”, the music gives off a perfect blend of excitement, relaxation, and joy. If only those two songs went on for a longer amount of time so the listener could truly process everything that is going on. This album is worthwhile to listen to for incredible feeling that the background textures create. With longer forms, these types of sonorities could truly rival the timbres of the more psychedelic genres of music that focus solely on timbre. I have quite an interesting find, though: the only song on this album that I rated timbre as the worst of its three elements was “Solo”, but that song also happened to be the highest rated song overall. This shows that I believe Ocean focused too much on timbre and not enough on melody and harmony. He could have had an album full of songs with the quality that “Solo” had, but chose instead to put most of his effort into one element. Timbre overpowered the album, and for good reason, but a change in priorities might suit Ocean better moving forward.
A sigh of relief echoed throughout the music world when this album was finally released. For all of its hype, Ocean sure delivered with an eye-opening sonic masterpiece. For those who love listening to music that speaks directly to them, this album comes as a true delight. It is also a fresh, new sound for those who use music to calm down or relax. Its heavy reliance on timbre takes R&B into a more interesting direction that, to my knowledge, has not been fully tapped into yet. Is it the right direction? That’s not my call as of right now; I’m not an R&B musician. While we wait and see how Ocean and the R&B world follow this up, there’s no denying that this album was a force of nature for 2016. I probably won’t listen to it again on my own accord, but if you value a relaxing and down-to-earth atmosphere in music, I highly recommend this album. Just don’t expect that anyone will be singing these tunes twenty years from now.