Frank Ocean's ‘Blonde’ & the Sound of Clarity

Oh, what a life we’re having.
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“Question is the ivy / that covers & disjuncts us… Answer is the same as / question, but disguised.” —Lorca, “Reflection”

For many moons, the operative question on my mind was always: why am I unhappy? Lately, I’ve found the answer has been quite simple: because I am not allowing myself to be happy. 

Now, I do everything “right.” I see a therapist; I take medication; I exercise; I journal; I have a job I love; I eat well; I socialize; I allow myself to live. I’ve come to learn that it’s easier to be in the throes of depression—where sadness is familiar yet acidic—than it is to fight through it. I’ve come to learn I am not one for the easy way out. Now, I feel like I’ve arrived. I am in the best mental space of my life, blanketed by a lucidity I’ve never experienced before. I feel like an over-eager tourist of my life, and though I’m not exactly giddy, I am getting there.

Yet, my operative question has not gone away. It’s merely evolved into something more disconcerting: why am I still unhappy. The answer, however, has changed into something more hopeful: because I am content. 

Neither elated nor terribly depressed, I am in a place of total balance for the first time in my life. While I still find myself attracted to and sometimes craving the lows—familiarity is a hell of a thing to unlearn—I no longer feel the need to go “there.” I am “here,” and I am allowing myself to enjoy the present for what it is. I’ve come to learn that things, including myself, can simply be, and that is enough.

In music, calmness exists as a primary mode for plenty of albums, but few are as clear-headed as Blonde. The record exists as a beacon of lucidity and could not exist if its author was not exercising agency over his emotions. On Blonde, Frank Ocean is as lucid as I am in this moment, despite the somber themes of the album. Blonde is alkaline in tone. For while sadness will always be sexy, Blonde is a lesson in keeping your head and staying in a clear place regardless of what is happening—or has happened—around you.

Take “Solo,” which is a song about being bitterly alone and self-medicating to cope. It would have been easy for Frank to make the accompanying soundscape dire and dressed in depressed rags, but instead, there’s a stark purity to the music. The chords are blown and wispy, the chirping sounds reminiscent of bird calls and still landscapes. Even when the chords deepen on the hook, there’s a starched richness to them that keeps everything from becoming overwrought as Frank sings of hell on Earth. It is beautiful, and it is okay. Frank Ocean does not sound defeated or wrung out; he sounds fine. Despite being alone, Frank Ocean sounds at peace with himself.

Immediately following, we have “Skyline To,” where Frank chuckles at the notion of joy to open the track. It’s a subtle and sardonic tone, but the lyrics are themselves bubbling with happiness before being rightfully balanced with anxiety over the passage of time. The track has a tender affect that’s quickly replaced by an irreverent spoke segment, that’s quickly subbed out for the clarity of held notes and ruminations on aging. If these moods are confounding, it’s because on “Skyline To,” Frank is doing the work to achieve a sense of lucidity and peace. The work is winding and at times difficult to parse.

We know Frank Ocean is succeeding, however, because “Self Control” unfolds with two voices. We have Frank’s pitched vocals and his natural tone, and the existence of two voices suggests that he has the ability to step outside of himself and reflect, something that only comes naturally when you are in that lucid place. For as morose as “Self Control” sounds, then, it is a moment where we can appreciate the contentment he achieved in writing and crafting Blonde. The record is not so much a relieved and belabored exhale as it is a calm stream of breath. “What a life we’re having,” he seems to say.

This is why the crag quality of the “Good Guy” interlude is so crucial. Frank Ocean’s voice is shaky and despondent, yet the keys are reminiscent of the blinding notes that make up “Solo.” Here we have proof that you can be experiencing the hardest times of your life, and still have contentment as your base. Things can simply be, and that means we can find peace in ourselves, regardless of what is happening around us.

Then we have the most heartbreaking track on Blonde, “White Ferrari.” To suggest plainly there is clarity to this track would be unfair without some words from Ocean, who told The New York Times in 2016 that the version of the song we hear is the one that gave him the most peace, which we can gather from him rejecting any other version of the track because “it didn’t give me peace yet.” From the acoustic ballad to the timid outro, “White Ferrari” is nothing if not precious and peaceful.

We can gather that “White Ferrari” is a kind of expunging of misery and heartache, and Frank does the work to arrive at a place of great emotional distance from the matters on the track. The song is similarly enveloped in these splayed chords and the vocal effects employed summon calming images of sea foam left on the sore. Everything is a pastel foam green and contemplative. There is slight vocal cacophony, briefly, as well, speaking to the phenomenon of “Self Control.”

The lines “I care for you still and I will forever / That was my part of the deal, honest” and later, with a vocal pitch, “I'm sure we're taller in another dimension / You say we're small and not worth the mention” are so visceral and hyper-specific, there is no way Frank could have come to write them without having enough distance and clarity on his romantic situations. The vocal pitch on the latter two lines, too, is important because it once again represents Frank's ability to step outside of himself and ponder on his past.

Even the fleeting images of dilated eyes and floating clouds, the refrain of “We got so familiar,” all speak to the emotional distance Frank Ocean achieved to be able to write and perform this song without breaking down. That distance, naturally, leads to the ultimate sense of clarity that drives Blonde. The man Frank Ocean had to become to write Blonde is one of a perfectly cleared mind, one who could reach back into the dungeons of his memory and make his pain pure again.

Blonde is a broken album, to be sure, but it is not one encumbered by pain; it floats through heartbroken drifts with brightness. The album is consumed not by hurt, but by clarity. Frank Ocean stands atop Blonde and tells us the tall tale of his wounded spirit with an impressive candor and wisdom. He has arrived at the moment where the dust has appropriately settled. He has arrived at the same place of contentment I find myself in now. 

The only question that remains, now, is: Where will we be taken next, and will we make sure to smile when we get there? 

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