When Frank Ocean’s Blonde arrived two days after visual album Endless, there was some confusion. We had watched him do woodwork for almost two weeks and attempted to decode a visual album. Then, a 17-track album dropped out of nowhere, preceded only by the woozy Nikes. While there was mystery surrounding its release, the true confusion lay in the sound of the album.
On Channel ORANGE, Frank had presented himself as R&B’s new wave. He fused gentle, beat-driven love songs alongside autobiographical cuts with nods to Stevie Wonder. It was groundbreaking but it was also immediately accessible. The hooks were pop radio-ready and his voice was present, often sitting on top of the mix. At first listen, Blonde sounded unfinished. The record felt like a sketchbook of ideas. Some songs were just over a minute long while there were also voice notes from his Mum and a bizarre narration by SebastiAn. Many of the full-length songs were devoid of a beat, introducing guitar into Frank’s repertoire more than ever before. The Wonder influences were still there were also tinges of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Casual Frank fans tuned out but those who stuck with it were rewarded raw, complicated record full of fragile, sincere love songs.
Blonde was as complicated as it needed to be. Ocean had the melodies but they needed more depth. These weren’t straight forward situations. They were hazy and they required multiple narratives. Ocean’s thoughts fired fast over gritty, misty soundscapes. At its clearest points, he was howling over an organ (Godspeed) and at its stormiest it felt as if he was yelling from far away (White Ferrari).
“How we experience memory sometimes, it’s not linear,” Ocean told The New York Times in one of his few interviews about the album.
“We’re not telling the stories to ourselves, we know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.”
That was Blonde. It was a patchy stream of consciousness that found clarity in noise. It wasn’t a black-and-white depiction of love, something that is so often over-simplified in music. It took time for the mind to piece the album together but once it did, it was magnificent.
At the time, it may have been hard to see how it fit into a modern R&B landscape. The genre was glossy and being infiltrated by trap beats. Jeremih, Tory Lanez, Bryson Tiller, Majid Jordan, Kehlani, Tinashe and more were setting the tone. Meanwhile, Chance The Rapper, Kanye West and Beyoncé released chaotic projects full of different sounds and voices. Blonde was an anomaly. And yet, three years later its fingerprints are everywhere.
"I like simplicity as much as I like complexity,” SZA said in an interview with i-D after the release of her debut album CTRL. In the same chat, she proclaimed, “Frank Ocean is king.” It’s difficult to listen to CTRL and not see tinges of Blonde in it. Like Ocean, SZA is an intimate, fearless songwriter. She was able to piece together modern rap and R&B, featuring Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar, while also delivering straight-up declarations of love over one singular guitar. Her mum also appears throughout the album, providing voice note lessons in a similar fashion to Ocean’s mum. The album arrived the year after Blonde to instantaneous praise and was a clear sign that the R&B climate had changed. Interestingly, the best way to see how Ocean inspired SZA is to listen to him covering album highlight The Weekend.
There are few secret Ocean fans. They’re a vocal bunch and BROCKHAMPTON’s Kevin Abstract is part of that group. “I’m nothing without Frank Ocean,” he tweeted in 2018. Like Ocean, BROCKHAMPTON have found a way to make tender music and still operate in the rap world. Iridescence, the group’s fourth album, is particularly indebted to Ocean. From Something About Him’s pitch-altered vocals to San Marco’s emotional guitar work, BROCKHAMPTON, perhaps unintentionally, displayed the influence. Similarly, Ocean’s Odd Future peer Tyler, The Creator has pivoted to softer hip-hop in recent years. It’s hard to imagine that Tyler hasn’t been influenced by Ocean’s approach to music by merely being in his presence. His 2017, Ocean-featuring record Flower Boy was his most personal to date. Weighty and aggressive at points, it also had moments of intimate quiet like on Boredom and Sometimes. The follow-up IGOR doubled down on that touching on similar lovelorn subjects as Blonde over ‘70s and ‘80s-inspired funk instrumentals.
There’s a timeless nature to Ocean’s songwriting that almost makes it genreless. It’s not just R&B that got a facelift from Blonde. Lorde is one artist who has been particularly vocal about the influence the album had on her Grammy-nominated second album Melodrama. “In this sort of post-Blonde landscape, we can all sort of do whatever we want in terms of instrumentation,” she told The Spinoff. That kind of limitless approach to a soundscape is particularly present on The Louvre - a song that moves from guitar to a strobing beat. During her tour, she covered Blonde’s Solo.
Viral sensation turned legitimate superstar Clairo has also been heavily influenced by Ocean. She made a name for herself posting acoustic covers of his work online and unsurprisingly her debut album Immunity has tinges of Ocean. White Flag’s flickering synths paired with distant guitar plucks is an affecting move from the Blonde playbook.
Melodrama and Immunity are still in their intimacy but they’re showing signs of timelessness. The same goes for Blonde. While it’s been influential, it’s not influencing a wave of music that’s going to fade over the next few years. By namechecking The Beatles and The Beach Boys as inspiration, Ocean is acknowledging that he set out to make music that’s going to impact for decades to come. While it may be tied to a period in his life, the feelings are universal. It’s unlikely that Ivy’s scratchy guitars or White Ferrari’s piercing falsetto won’t raise goosebumps on the next generation’s arms.