MORE than a year after its sudden release, Frank Ocean’s Blonde remains a mystery in the extreme; a beguiling tone poem of an R&B record that both quotes Elliott Smith and features Yung Lean a few tracks later.

It’s an album that feels less linear on every new listen, and yet manages to remain a uniquely affecting portrait of 20-something ennui and malaise. Perhaps it remains so inscrutable because Frank refuses to ever pull back the curtains and reveal a true narrative, drip-feeding glimpses into his psyche instead.

It’s almost passe to conflate drugs with Frank’s music at this point, but Blonde truly does feel like an acid trip at times. It’s got that same sense of tranquil over-thinking to it, with lyrical and musical motifs intertwined into the fabric of the record’s surreal mood and stream-of-consciousness manner.

Blonde’s lyrics aren’t quite impenetrable, but they’re engrossing in a lived-in, naturalistic way and authentic to Frank’s often baffling, stoner-y public persona. On ‘Good Guy’, a blind date is painted in the most fragile terms possible, with quiet organ chords illuminating his gorgeous, achingly-real discontent with how modern technology has coloured dating (a theme that pops up throughout the album, the titular ‘Facebook Story’ the most obvious example).

‘Solo’ finds him attempting to find solace in hedonistic pursuits while travelling in solitude, while ‘White Ferrari’ remains a stunning late-album highlight; both as a showcase for his dexterous falsetto and his skill for writing moving, desperately sad vignettes full of empathy for their subjects.

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FOR Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson and fiance Sam “Bolan” Netterfield, the Blonde obsession runs deep. The pair have matching ‘Solo’ tattoos on the back of their left arms. The track was the soundtrack to the start of their relationship, and it influenced ‘Solo III’ from their 2017 album BATS.

“I wanted to create something that captured how it felt at that time,” says Tim, “the beginning of our relationship, just hanging out, listening to Blonde and feeling like it was all too good to be true.”

Tim says his connection with Blonde was immediate. “It’s poetic, sonically unhindered, and feels like it’s been presented in its purest, most true form. It doesn’t feel over-produced and I think that’s what makes it so easy to connect with.

“It feels like Frank has captured these moments in time and transcribed the feelings of those instances without giving you the full context of what was really happening. It sits in this place where you feel like you understand how Frank was feeling even if you don’t know the details.”

"It sits in this place where you feel like you understand how Frank was feeling even if you don’t know the details.” - Tim Nelson, Cub Sport

The connection wasn’t as instant for Chloe Kaul, one half of Melbourne duo Kllo. Her love for the album was built gradually while touring the world with bandmate/cousin Simon Lam.

“We fell in love with nearly every nuance of it, the brave lyrics and minimal experimental R&B production,” she says. “The way these moments play out in context of the full length is its real strength.

“It had been so long since we’d heard an album with such a strong philosophy, even with all the sporadic jumps it always landed with precise intention. This inspired us hugely through writing our own album [Backwater], to always favour on the side of emotion and to never compromise on that.”

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THERE are many lovers referenced throughout Blonde, but the one constant companion to the narrator throughout the record’s many locations and moods is marijuana. It’s something Frank frequently alludes to (“the trees” and “green leaf” are my two favourite metaphors used); adding to the album’s foggy, dazed feeling.

The guestlist on Blonde is truly impressive: Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Andre 3000 all feature, with indie heroes James Blake, (Sandy) Alex G, and Rostam adding to the album’s dense production. Frank uses these musicians in unconventional, off-kilter ways.

It takes a few listens to hear Beyonce’s backing vocals on ‘Pink + White’, or Kendrick Lamar’s one-word incantations on ‘Skyline To’, and good luck even finding what song Yung Lean is on.

The most noticeable guest is Andre 3000, who sticks to the “one great verse a year” formula he’s perfected. He takes centre stage on ‘Solo (Reprise)’ for a sad, cutting diatribe of a verse that references police brutality and rapper’s ghost-writing in equal measure.

Frank also interpolates songs from professed influences throughout, quoting Elliot Smith’s ‘A Fond Farewell’ on ‘Seigfried’ and sampling Stevie Wonder’s cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘Close To You’. It contributes to the record’s woozy, hallucinogenic quality; like he’s giving you the smallest peek into what truly inspires him as a musician – and as a person.

Production-wise, Blonde is too distinctively strange to have inspired a raft of imitators. It’s hard to imagine another R&B record with as many acoustic guitars and drum-less tracks as this one, let-alone one as low-key, moody and atypical as Blonde.

"We fell in love with nearly every nuance of it, the brave lyrics and minimal experimental R&B production." - Chloe Kaul, Kllo

Slum Sociable’s Miller Upchurch says he was completely transfixed by the spareness of ‘Solo’. “No percussion on a single? He’s gotta be havin a laugh! But the constantly evolving keys and infectious melodies held their own, the whole way through, listen after listen,” he says. “Frank makes it hard not to feel when you listen to his stuff.”

Like Tim from Cub Sport, the tracks on Blonde hold personal significance for Miller, particularly ‘Self Control’, which captured a moment in time with his girlfriend Hannah.

“That’s a real talent. There are too many songs that go over my head, but I can never escape the emotion he so (seemingly) effortlessly portrays in every song. Also I haven’t fact checked this, but I reckon he could be the only artist to have Beyoncé as a backup vocalist on a track.”

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BLONDE’S production can feel scattershot at times, but at no point does it feel like Frank has bit off more than he can chew. It’s invigorating as a listener to hear an artist attempt a project as encompassing, large-scale and expansive as Blonde is – and pull it off.

The many guitarists used on the record (Buddy Ross, Austin Feinstein, Alex G) all share the same knack for creating expressive guitar lines while also keeping the focus on Frank’s singular star quality.

Rostam’s understated, deft lead guitar elevates ‘Ivy’, creating a beautifully subdued arrangement that feels instantly nostalgic. Given the elongated guest-list (most songs juggle a multitude of different writers, producers, samples and guests), the album’s cohesiveness feels like a minor miracle, managing to jump from ambient sound collages to cerebral R&B to spectral indie rock while maintaining Frank’s conspicuous sense of identity.

London-based, Brisbane-raised singer Jordan Rakei says Blonde is best listened to in full.  “My favourite thing about the album is the colour and production of the sonics. They are so understated but it seems so calculated too.”

Outside of what was one of the most manic release campaigns in recent music history, Blonde remains a captivating and engrossing listen; one with as many layers and as much depth as you’d expect from an artist as elusive as Frank.

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