Blonde (stylized as blond) is the second studio album by American singer Frank Ocean. It was released on August 20, 2016, as a timed exclusive on the iTunes Store and Apple Music, and followed the August 19 release of Ocean's visual album Endless. Initially known as Boys Don't Cry and teased for a July 2015 release, the album suffered several delays and was the subject of widespread media anticipation leading up to its release.
The album features an abstract and experimental sound in comparison to Ocean's previous releases, and includes guest vocals from André 3000, Beyoncé, Yung Lean, and Kim Burrell, among others. Production is handled by Ocean himself, alongside a variety of high-profile record producers, including Malay and Om'Mas Keith, who collaborated with Ocean on Channel Orange, as well as James Blake, Jon Brion, Buddy Ross, Pharrell Williams and Rostam Batmanglij, among others.
Blonde debuted at number one in several countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, and in its first week recorded sales of 232,000 copies (275,000 with album-equivalent units). Its physical release was accompanied by a magazine entitled Boys Don't Cry. The album was supported by lead single "Nikes". It has received widespread acclaim from critics and appears on the year-end lists of many publications.
On February 21, 2013, Ocean confirmed that he had started work on his second studio album, which he confirmed would be another concept album. He revealed that he was working with Tyler, The Creator, Pharrell Williams, and Danger Mouse on the record. He later stated that he was being influenced by The Beach Boys and The Beatles. He also stated that he was interested in collaborating with Tame Impala and King Krule and wanted to record the album in Bora Bora. Ocean ultimately began recording at New York's Electric Lady Studios and, after a period of writer's block, recorded in London at Abbey Road Studios in addition to various other studios.
In April 2014, Ocean stated that his second album was nearly finished. In June 2014, Billboard reported that the singer was working with a string of artists such as Happy Perez (whom he worked with on Nostalgia, Ultra), Charlie Gambetta and Kevin Ristro, while producers Hit-Boy, Rodney Jerkins and Danger Mouse were also said to be on board. On November 29, 2014, Ocean released a snippet of a new song supposedly from his upcoming follow-up to Channel Orange called "Memrise" on his official Tumblr page. The Guardian described the song as: "a song which affirms that despite reportedly changing labels and management, he has maintained both his experimentation and sense of melancholy in the intervening years".
Blonde features an abstract, atmospheric sound in comparison to Ocean's previous work, and utilizes a variety of unconventional musical elements. Tara Joshi from The Quietus wrote that its form "isn't that of a typical pop or R&B album – it tends to meander into his surreal, almost vaporwave-y dreamscapes, cut with jarring samples of conversation, odd effects, drifting guitars and beatless melodies that go on longer than expected." Neil McCormick described its sound as "a mellifluous concoction of shimmering melodic haze and ambient mood, almost entirely absent of anything resembling a singalong chorus or club groove." The Observer's Kate Mossman characterized the album as "cerebral, non-macho, boundary-free R&B." Tim Jonze tenatively likened Blonde to a collection of loose sketches and compared its "lush and atmospheric" tracks to experimental and texture-driven albums such as Radiohead's Kid A (2000) and Big Star's Third (1974), writing that "the tone is muted and introspective, full of spectral guitar and lacking not just hefty beats but any kind of percussion at all."
Discussing its musical eclecticism, Rolling Stone critic Jonah Weiner wrote that "this is an R&B album in only the most elastic and expansive sense of the term" and noted that "minimalist rock guitar and simple electric keyboard work drive numerous songs; twitchy rhythms and bizarre vocal effects creep in from the edges. Songs change shape subtly as they go, rarely ending in the same place they began." Ann Powers described the album as "equal parts psychedelic indie rock, post-IDM electronica, post-U2 / Coldplay-esque Eno-pop, post-Drake hip hop, and post-Maxwell drifty soul / R&B," and wrote that "experimental, druggy sonics abound." Nina Corcoran from Consequence of Sound described Blonde as featuring an avant-garde minimalist style similar to the work of Brian Eno, and noted that Ocean often utilizes "acoustic and electric guitars over traditional synth and bass-heavy R&B." Andy Gill of The Independent wrote that "one track bleeds languidly into another, as if we're listening to a long, stoned stream-of-consciousness," and described the album's sound as a "glitchy, miasmic brand of R&B."
McCormick noted Ocean's use of varispeed and Auto-Tune effects on his voice, while Greg Kot stated that he utilizes these audio processing devices to employ "two distinct voices, like characters in a play, a recurring theme throughout the album". Spin magazine's Dan Weiss compared his vocal treatments to those of Prince's aborted Camille album. McCormick also suggested that Ocean's voice and melodies obscured the experimental nature of his compositions. The track "Seigfried" interpolates a spoken word part by Elliott Smith and "White Ferrari" borrows musical elements from the Beatles' song "Here, There and Everywhere", while "Close to You" incorporates a Stevie Wonder sample. Guest vocalist André 3000 contributes a rapid rap verse on "Solo (Reprise)" which has been described as the album's only overt guest feature. "Pretty Sweet" features gospel choir elements and dissonant noise. The album ends with an interview between Ocean and his brother, recorded when Ocean was 11 years old.
On April 6, 2015, Ocean announced that his follow-up to Channel Orange would be released in July, as well as a publication, although no further details were released. The album was ultimately not released in July, with no explanation given for its delay. The publication was rumored to be called Boys Don't Cry, and was slated to feature the aforementioned "Memrise", although the track did not make the final track listing.
On July 2, 2016, Ocean hinted at a possible second album with an image on his website pointing to a July release date. The image shows a library card labeled Boys Don't Cry with numerous stamps, implying various due dates. The dates begin with July 2, 2015, and conclude with July 2016, and November 13, 2016. Ocean's brother, Ryan Breaux, further suggested this release with an Instagram caption of the same library card photo reading "BOYS DON'T CRY #JULY2016". On August 1, 2016, a live video hosted by Apple Music showing an empty hall was launched on the website boysdontcry.co. The website also featured a new design and the video marked the first update on the website since a "date due" post from July.
On August 1, 2016, a video appeared that showed Ocean woodworking and sporadically playing instrumentals on loop. That same day, many news outlets reported that August 5, 2016, could be the release date for Boys Don't Cry. The video was revealed to be promotion for Endless, a 45-minute-long visual album that began streaming on Apple Music on August 19, 2016. The day after the release of Endless, Ocean posted a new picture on his website advertising four pop-up shops in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and London. These shops contained hundreds of magazines, with three different covers and the album on a CD included with each cover, the covers also appear in the magazine, the first cover—which is part of a collection of pictures called "I'm a Morning Person"—was taken in Berlin, Germany by Wolfgang Tillmans, who's song "Device Control" was sampled on the songs "Device Control" and "Higgs" on Endless and the alternate cover (Which does not appear in the magazine, however, it is one of the alternate covers of the magazine) appears to have been shot by Viviane Sassen in Tokyo, Japan and was taken as part of a collection of other photographs, which appears in the "Foxface" collection of pictures. The magazines were free and were available to one per person. Later in the day, the album was released exclusively on the iTunes Store and Apple Music. However, the track list differed from the digital version of the album, with an extended version of "Nikes" featuring Japanese rapper KOHH. "Nikes" was officially released as the album's lead single on August 20, 2016.
Rather than going on a typical promotional tour playing radio festivals and appearing on television shows, Ocean spent a month after the release of Blonde, traveling to countries such as China, Japan and France. He also chose not to submit Blonde for consideration at the Grammy Awards, stating "that institution certainly has nostalgic importance... It just doesn't seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down."
Blonde received widespread acclaim from critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream publications, the album received an average score of 87, based on 38 reviews. Mojo reviewer Andy Cowan called it "a beguiling, meandering sprawl that rewards total immersion", while Joshi deemed Blonde a "fully conceptualised, curated personal vision" and "a sublime and largely impressive album" in her review for The Quietus. In Rolling Stone, Weiner described the album as "by turns oblique, smolderingly direct, forlorn, funny, dissonant and gorgeous: marvel of digital-age psychedelic pop." Writing for The Guardian, Jonze hailed Blonde as "one of the most intriguing and contrary records ever made". He said that "what originally appear to be Blonde's flaws – its loose ends and ambiguities – end up as its strengths," concluding that "what gradually emerges is a record of enigmatic beauty, intoxicating depth and intense emotion." According to Pitchfork journalist Ryan Dombal, while Channel Orange had boasted a more eclectic range of styles, Blonde showed Ocean expressing his romantic, philosophical, and melancholic ideas and emotions over an especially spare musical backdrop, giving the record an intimacy that "attracts the ear, bubbles the brain, raises the flesh".
McCormick was somewhat less enthusiastic. In The Daily Telegraph, he wrote that Blonde "should be celebrated as part of a generational shift away from the obvious in pop", while finding the record to be "meandering, contemplative and introverted", suggesting that it would be a laborious experience for some listeners. AllMusic's Andy Kellman deemed it "undiluted and progressive" but qualified his praise by stating that "over the course of an hour, all the sparsely ornamented ruminations can be a bit of a chore to absorb, no matter how much one hangs on each line". In Vice, Robert Christgau admired Ocean's reliance on his "expressive and capable but unathletic voice", the candid stories explored on "Good Guy" and "Facebook Story", and more aggressive songs such as "Nights". "As on Channel Orange, however, his angst is a luxury of leisure", Christgau wrote, finding the details of Ocean's interpersonal lyrics occasionally relatable but more often "specific to his social status". Gill was more critical in The Independent, deeming much of the music lethargic, aimless, and devoid of strong melodies.
In the first week of release, Blonde debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and recorded 276,000 album-equivalent units—232,000 of which were purchases of the entire album. The songs on the album were collectively streamed more than 65.4 million times, second behind only the streams for Views by Drake during that week. Forbes estimated that Blonde earned Ocean nearly $1 million in profits after one week of availability, attributing this to him releasing the album independently and as a limited exclusive release on iTunes and Apple Music. Blonde has generated 404 million on-demand audio streams for its songs in the US through February 9, 2017, according to Nielsen Music. The album has earned 620,000 album-equivalent units, of which 348,000 are in traditional album sales.
At the end of 2016, Blonde appeared on a number of critics' lists ranking the year's top albums. According to Metacritic, it was the third most prominently ranked album of 2016.
Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.
Notes"Nikes" features additional vocals by Amber Coffman; the magazine edition of "Nikes" features uncredited vocals by KOHH
"Be Yourself" features uncredited vocals by Rosie Watson
"Pink + White" features additional vocals by Beyoncé
"Solo" features additional vocals by Jazmine Sullivan
"Self Control" features uncredited vocals by Austin Feinstein and Yung Lean
"Solo (Reprise)" features uncredited vocals by André 3000
"Facebook Story" features uncredited vocals by Sebastian
"Godspeed" features vocals by Kim Burrell and Yung Lean
Sample credits"Be Yourself", "Good Guy", "Facebook Story" and "Interviews" contain a sample of "Running Around" by Buddy Ross
"Close to You" contains a sample of "(They Long to Be) Close to You", written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and performed by Stevie Wonder
"White Ferrari" contains an interpolation of "Here, There and Everywhere" written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and performed by The Beatles
"Seigfried" contains a quote from "A Fond Farewell" by Elliott Smith and a sample from "Untitled" by Rostam Batmanglij
"Futura Free" contains a sample of "Anthrax" written by Dave Allen, Hugo Burnham, Andy Gill and Jon King and performed by Gang of Four