Pink + White : Duality and Frank Ocean’s Blonde - Sazi Bongwe
My Apple Music Replay statistics say that so far this year, I’ve played ‘Blonde’ by Frank Ocean a total of 464 times; and I can assure you that number is rising. The album clearly means a lot to me but I know that I can say with absolute, objective certainty that it is a masterpiece. I’ve often found myself balancing my appreciation for the sheer artistry of Blonde and all that I’ve personally associated with it; and ultimately over the years the two have just become one. Invariably this article would go on forever if I dove into all the reasons why I hold this album, and Frank Ocean himself, so close to me (pun intended); so I’m going to try to focus on one. The album’s title can be read as both Blond and Blonde, depending on where you look, and this is only one of the many ways in which Frank Ocean’s second studio album comes to exhibit the concept of duality. It’s a link that endures throughout the whole hour of music, and one I’d like to explore.
On the 6th of April 2015, almost at the peak of the excruciatingly long wait for Frank Ocean to release a follow up to Channel Orange, he famously published a Tumblr post captioned, “I got two versions. I got twooo versions…” These would eventually materialise into what we know as Blonde and Endless. (If you’d like to know more about how Frank used the release of Endless just a few days prior to Blonde to notoriously finesse Def Jam Recordings out of $20 000 000, watch this Youtube video - it’s a truly epic story). The two albums compliment each other exceptionally well - where Blonde is visceral, Endless is equally as visceral. Endless is filled with moments that are subtle yet, if you read between the lines, so significant. While Blonde, by virtue of its added streaming presence, has the greater acclaim; Endless holds its own. Both albums are artistically experimental but at the same time deeply emotional - a dualism that manifests into two timeless collections of music.
It’s hard to talk about Blonde without mentioning that beat switch on Nights. Through a device known as musical frisson, Frank turns a melodic, head-bopping anthem into an eerie, melancholic beat; accompanied by wrenching lines like “wanna see nirvana but don’t wanna die yet.” It’s easy to get lost in this moment of transcendence, but I think the real beauty is in it’s greater significance. The beat switch marks the exact middle point of Blonde - essentially splitting the album into two 30-minute sides. Synonymous with Nights itself; the first half is comparably brighter and more idyllic while the latter half takes on a more intrusive and melancholic form. Yet, what I get out of this is not two isolated half-hour experiences that run parallel to each other. Rather, the album is an infinite loop that connects these perceptions - and the way Frank manages to intertwine things that are in opposition to one another is what makes the album such an expansive experience. Night versus day, femininity versus masculinity, summer versus winter - they’re all explored. On Ivy, Frank proclaims that “we’ll never be those kids again” and so the battle between youth and adulthood continues. He explores, as he puts it on Pretty Sweet, “what it means to be alive on this side” but also “how it feels to have arrived.”
Duality is everywhere you look across Frank’s discography. On perhaps my favourite song of his, Rushes, he speaks of “twin peaking, highs and lows” at the crescendo of a song that sparks something different in me each time. While hugely ironic, this concept is furthered on his track “Solo” when Frank sings “it’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire...in hell there’s heaven / there’s a bull and a matador duelling in the sky” On Bad Religion, off Frank’s debut album Channel Orange, he tragically draws parallels between love and divinity. ‘Chanel’ represents duality perhaps more than any other Frank Ocean song; one in which he uses lines like “I see both sides like Chanel” to explore his sexuality. I’m conscious of what it does to put such high-sounding interpretations on music in a general sense, but I think Frank Ocean’s warrants that. Blonde is split into two halves while it and Endless exist as works of Frank Ocean that mirror each other. Whether it’s through contestation or similarity, Frank communicates ideas and meaning through his music, and as his fans, we further those conversations through writing such as this. It helps that we can engage in that way while listening to some of the most beautiful songs out there.
There’s something so fitting about the way Frank chooses his titles - but most especially that of his first mixtape : Nostalgia, Ultra. If there had to be a two-letter phrase with which I would precis my experience in listening to Frank’s music, it would be that one. John Green writes in Looking For Alaska, “imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia” and I can’t help but feel that way when I listen to Frank. It’s like Nina LoCour puts it, “we were nostalgic for a time that wasn’t over yet.” I’ve never actually been able to say to somebody exactly what the word nostalgia means, but I know that that’s what I’m feeling when I’m listening to Frank Ocean. I know that I’m having constantly having experiences that will attribute a different sense of nostalgia to Blonde, and change the way that I listen to the album forever. In this way, Blonde is a gatekeeper for the feelings we hold closest to ourselves - and perhaps that’s what makes it such a masterpiece after all. We all have different experiences of the album, but we’re equally as nostalgic for those experiences. It’s a level of identification and connection that I have never found in an album or in an artist before; and one that I’m not likely to ever find again.
There is, however, a downside to being such a big Frank Ocean fan - he’s one of the most reclusive artists in all of music. Every now and then he’ll come out with a single or a guest appearance, but as a fanbase, Frank Ocean fans have become accustomed to a deafening silence. We waited four years for Blonde and now it’s almost been four years since Blonde. Even beyond the music, in his personal life and image, Frank seems intent on life as a secluded figure. On a Youtube video of a live Frank Ocean set, a user commented “frank invented corona so that he could cancel his coachella show, there’s no other explanation.” A large part of the frustration is not necessarily just that Frank Ocean fans are annoyed that he doesn’t frequently release music; it’s more that we know that that next album (and anything else he releases) will almost certainly change the trajectory of our years and of our lives. It seems impossible that he could top Blonde, but we’re almost assured that he will - and waiting with that conviction is excruciating. Holding in the one hand this immense appreciation for all of Frank’s music; and in the other an intense longing for more of it, seems like a balance which is inherent to being a Frank Ocean fan - and one that won’t be overcome anytime soon. When the burning desire for a new Frank album fills me, I remember what Toni Morrison once wrote :
“At some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough.”
While I don’t think we have (or ever will have) enough Frank Ocean, looking at his music through the lens of this quote does comfort me. Whether it’s from the twelve seconds he masterfully puts together on ‘Ambience 001 - In A Certain Way’ on ‘Endless’ or the final 1:07 of ‘White Ferrari,’ which almost always brings me to tears; the beauty within Frank Ocean’s music is enough. In fact, it’s more than enough. In investigating the way in which Frank explores duality, we’re reminded that there will always be different ways to listen to his music - each as beautiful and significant as the next. In this way, Frank transcends the title of musician. He’s an artist. Who knows - maybe he’s both.