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“That's a pretty fucking fast year flew by.”
This weekend, light a single candle for Blonde and Endless, Frank Ocean’s once long-awaited follow-ups to his debut album Channel Orange. Ending Frank’s extended evasion of the spotlight, the albums were a civic cotillion, the commencement of phase two of the Frank Ocean story. Years in the making, by August of last year the albums had become larger than life. So large, in fact, that despite being hinted at by Frank, then tentatively scheduled by Frank’s team, and alluded to by other artists, they didn’t seem real until they were here. And even then, as that perplexing pseudo-livestream of Frank working in an artist’s studio gave way to a looping music video (Endless) of Frank building a staircase and then vitally, to the music itself, there was still a dreamlike quality to it all. Frank’s mystique was so resolute, so obfuscating, that until you heard the music, the whole experience felt capable of collapsing.
A year later the dream continues. Blonde still spills in every direction, ideas and rhymes and scenes contorting into new shapes at every turn. Ocean has achieved something rare: an album that still sounds brand new a full 365 days after its release. Details that were once glossed over continue to reveal themselves over the dozen months and hundreds of listens since its surprise release. In a minute, “Good Guy” sleekly unpacks a first date, moving from the awkward shock of the first meeting (“You text nothing like you look”) to a bad time at a bar (“Here’s where I realized/You talk so much more than I do”), to nostalgia for the texts Frank just disparaged (“Here’s to the highlights/When I was convinced/That this was more than/Just some some night shit”). I initially pegged it as an ode to a good guy, not a rebuke. “Ivy” revives a lost love by invoking its delicacy. “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” Frank croons, conjuring the past and questioning it in one breath. The song’s sweet, guitar-stoked nostalgia obscures its aching honesty about why the love flamed out.
Frank’s frequent modulation of his voice gave these songs a sense of clarity when I first heard them. From the helium-tinged trill on “Nikes,” to the confessional cries of “Godspeed,” to that full, familiar warble on “Pink + White,” Frank seemed to be using his voice to approximate the freedom he was enjoying as an artist. Flitting between melody, plain speech, and rap just as easily as he dashed through memories and experiences, he sounded comfortable in flux. After spending a year with the record I’m struck by how finicky it feels. “Skyline To” whirrs under all that twinkly smoothness, Frank purring beneath his melodies or disrupting them with raps. “Blur,” “smoke,” “haze” he shouts at odd intervals, willing himself toward evanescence. Likewise, “Futura Free” is rocked by distorted ad-libs and gurgly reverb that Frank seems to delight in ignoring. “I ain’t on your schedule,” he taunts. Blonde initially felt like a rich documentation of Frank’s hectic, mysterious life, but now it feels like a declaration, a commitment to and pride in that mystery.
Endless, in this light, feels less like a supplemental slight to his former label and more like an experiment in achieving that allure. The music is anonymous relative to Frank’s typically distinctive work and the video is absolutely a tedious troll, but Endless finds Frank asking some big questions about his career. “Sideways” and “Slide on Me” toy with the pros and cons of vanishing into the shadows. “They forgetting that it’s me, akh/Akhi, tell em I ain’t gone, wallahi,” he sings on “Slide on Me,” his ego egging him into the spotlight. “When I’m up they gon hate/When I’m down they gon celebrate,” Frank then considers on “Sideways,” wary of how empty the adoration can be. The record as a whole pivots on this axis, alternatively giving us Frank Ocean the anonymous session musician and Frank Ocean the cautious recluse, constructs that are equally constricting and free-wheeling.
Frank has walked among us since the releases of Blonde and Endless, debuting songs on his radio show and touring and protesting the Grammys, but these albums still elide the clarity we clamored for when he was in hiding. A year ago that might have sounded tragic, but now it sounds like the highest liberty. Blonde and Endless don’t further the Frank Ocean story; they unravel it, one dream propagated into endless possibility, the grandest collapse.