On August 20, 2016, exactly five years ago, Frank Ocean released his third album Blonde — a masterwork on contemporary music, a standing symbol of the Queer experience, and one of the most critically successful albums of the 2010s. Blonde is, inarguably, a contender for the Decade’s Most Iconic Record award. It set itself up as an institution in songwriting and storytelling so quickly that, five years in, music fanatics take it for granted — in most minds, Blonde always existed as it stands now.
But memories are only loose shards of the whole story. That’s why, after these five eventful years, it’s unsurprising to realize that, even though we take Blonde and Frank Ocean for granted, we barely even remember it’s his third (and not second) album. Upon release, in 2016, we had the faintest idea if we should spell it Blond — as the hypnotic artwork suggests — or, well, Blonde. It’s too easy to overlook that when Blonde surfaced, we didn’t expect Frank to bring up lyrics from the Beatles. Neither did we plan for Frank to have Kanye West on songwriting credits, Beyoncé on backing vocals, or ask the up-and-coming indie kid then known as (Sandy) Alex G to play guitars. Just five years in, we tend to forget that Frank Ocean stunned the music world with Blonde.
As history has it, Blonde first came into light in April 2015, when Frank — still basking on the success of his debut, the sexy and acclaimed R&B classic Channel Orange, released in July 2012 — posted in his Tumblr pictures of himself holding two stylish, kitschy magazines, both titled Boys Don’t Cry. The caption fired up speculation: it read, “I got two versions. I got twooo versions…” Was Frank teasing a new record titled Boys Don’t Cry, the successor to Channel Orange? Was this incoming effort a double album, or maybe two different iterations of the same one? As with most things about Frank Ocean, a prolonged silence — and heaps of unfounded guesswork by the expectant music world — followed suit.
But it all unravelled in a heartbeat. More than a year later, on August 1, 2016, the website boysdontcry.co began streaming a puzzling monochrome video of a warehouse stuffed with workbenches. On August 19, the site updated with Endless, a 45-minute visual album (and arguably Frank’s second proper LP). Amid this exercise of shock and awe, Blonde dropped a day later.
In retrospect, the attentively-covered rollout and its mysteries and mix-ups — such as fans asserting that the album would be titled Boys Don’t Cry — curiously outshine Blonde’s musical statements. It’s too easy to forget how Blonde’s layout took every pundit by surprise. The preceding record was part of it: Channel Orange had been noted for its genre-establishing take on the burgeoning sexy, Alternative R&B movement — a sound Frank fostered with his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. As such, commentators even called for Frank to keep up with Marvin Gaye’s discography and shape his next record in the vein of Gaye’s 1973 classic Let’s Get it On.
But not even the looniest fortune teller would have guessed how Blonde turned out. The artwork — a close-up picture of a shirtless Frank, his hair dyed in green, his hand hiding his distressed face — is far off from any merry, optimistic Motown photograph. Listeners eager to hear Frank’s croon were dazed: The opening track, “Nikes,” is frizzy-textured, electronically-driven, and built around high-pitched, Chipmunk Soul-like vocals, a bold move for a gifted vocalist. Frank regains his normal voice as the song unfolds and transitions into the guitar-driven “Ivy.” As Blonde’s credits surfaced later into the year, listeners were startled to learn that the first two tracks had contributions from Amber Coffman and Rostam Batmanglij, of Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend fame, respectively. It’d be an overstatement to claim that Frank turned exclusively towards delicate indie pop, though: the next track, “Pink + White,” was produced by Pharrell and features Beyoncé on backing vocals.
The Alternative R&B sound of the 2010s spawned top-billing stars, such as The Weeknd, James Blake, or SZA, but, regarding style and songwriting, it’s still hard to find any record that sounds like Blonde. Its unmatched status may be the album’s most overlooked triumph — how it successfully merged the electronic, throbbing elements of the new R&B sound with the quiet, toned-down aspects of the singer-songwriter world.
In that sense, “White Ferrari” is a standout. This subtle, shifting track goes over the singer’s obsession with cars, roads and rides before a chiming guitar kicks in — to which Frank sings: “Spending each day of the year / White Ferrari / Good times.” The familiar line belongs to the Beatles’ 1966 staple “Here, There and Everywhere.” As the coppery guitar chords fade away and give place to a fuzzy, distorted sample, Frank closes the song with a layered falsetto that recalls the collaborative work of Bon Iver and James Blake. “White Ferrari” is dazzlingly minimal: a successful, unexpected crossover between auteur songwriting traditions and the decade’s novel sounds.
In an interview with The New York Times in late 2016, Frank touched upon the crossroads between stories and memory. “How we experience memory sometimes, it’s not linear,” he said. “We’re not telling the stories to ourselves. We know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.” Blonde survives in this liminal world: even though it’s a snap to recognize it as an institution, we’ve forgotten how its songs broke ground. On its fifth anniversary, and upon re-assessing how the record leaps out on the music map, listening to Blonde remains an occasion to stand in awe.