What Frank Ocean’s Blond Says About Living — and Loving — in the City Right Now

Johnson: The long-awaited album takes on the walls — literal and figurative — we erect every day.

Cities are cold places densely packed with people who endlessly trade each other. In the city we trade stories, bodies, jobs, identities, seats in restaurants. The stories and feelings are all right there.

Someone’s voice yells in the streets at night, and the night swallows it whole; the volume goes up; you can put an ear to the wall of your apartment or row house and hear your neighbor’s TV and conversations; your open windows play the city’s music of ambulance and police sirens screaming down the street; the cars cursing at each other. Couples, groups of friends walk under or past your windows; anonymous laughter, arguments and come-ons blur together with the breeze.

We summon each other to take us places; one thumb motion swipes right to get a night fix with a stranger; another thumb motion summons a stranger’s car to take us somewhere else. We slide in and out of beautiful and painful experiences and encounters and move onto the next ones with ease. As close as we are, or can be, we still text.

Frank Ocean’s long-anticipated Blond captures a lot of this existential city life — bringing to the forefront of his songs the idea that we’re deep-feeling, unconnected selfish people. 

Throughout Blond Ocean draws a picture of  urban life made up of literal and figurative walls that we not only put up for ourselves but task others to navigate. There’s walls in the city that Frank sings about, too — there are the figurative ones in “Ivy,” where Frank talks about the ones he regrettably threw up after being with someone that loved him a bit too soon: “if I can see through walls I can see you’re faking/if you could see my thoughts you would see our faces/safe in a rental like an armored truck.” There’s that city coldness in him remembering how he dismissed the heartbreak too: “broke your heart this week / you’ll probably feel better by the weekend.” That moving on, that callousness, feel real, but also underscore the point of the song too; the heart doesn’t forget.

But there are also literal walls serving as metaphors for distance, as in “Seigfried,” which discusses the choices inherent in both kinds of walls; Ocean ponders life from a high-story, walled apartment that places him above the pain below (“I’m living over city / and taking in the homeless sometimes”) while contemplating if making concessions about who he really is versus who others want him to be is ultimately placing him in a comfortable box itself. When he sings, “Been living in an idea from another man’s mind… to settle in a place with some nice views… two kids and a swimming pool…” you get the tension of not only making choices when you’re Frank, but when you’re anyone who’s ever been faced with the choices of living an honest life.

It’s a sentiment — these fleeting, remorseful moments of connection in urban settings — that resurfaces again and again in on album that often feels like its own nostalgia — magnified through a deeper introspection and hinted at in songs like “Bad Religion” from 2012’s Channel Orange. “Good Guy” picks that single’s heart back up while flipping the positions of “Ivy”: in this one, the perspective is of the person spurned by a hookup/blind date that doesn’t pan out because the guy isn’t as into the protagonist as much as he’s into him.

But to what end though? Blond swings you through a more mature Frank who ponders the same question — songs like the beautiful “Siegfried” are about the other side of those decisions — at what cost do we treat love as expendable when we have our own walls?

But the album’s most dense offering comes in the form of the song “Nights” which features an intersectionality-type map of stories, relationships and feelings. The song’s skittering structure moves you through perspectives, moods, relationships and hardships in five minutes — covering a series of black narratives all dealing with unique identities and stresses. You get a taste of all the characters over verses: The distant one that’s struggled with having meaningful relationships with family, friends and a lover and who seems to have that urban disposal ability; to someone trying to move on — emotionally, financially, intimately — after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The masterful aspect of the song is the repurposed hook that takes on a different meaning with each vignette. The refrain of endless nights, responsibilities and desires are what makes the hook’s final quartet land differently each time: “Shut the fuck up, I don’t want your conversation / Rolling marijuana, that’s a cheap vacation / My everyday shit, every night shit / My everyday shit, every night shit.”

And this is where Blond also succeeds: Its sonic story is the latest in an urgent and resurgent period of mainstream artists speaking more pointedly about the multiplicity of the black experience. It’s something that should be trumped up more, actually; on the heels of To Pimp A Butterfly; Black Messiah; Lemonade — all documenting various perils of life in Black America — comes this album reflecting a black man not readily showcased in the wider culture: the impassioned, angry, socially aware, bisexual man.

Blond sits us in the middle of Ocean’s identity; it walks you through the fact that we should identify with him the pain of Trayvon and police brutality, of how your queerness can invite and disinvite everyone — lovers, loved ones, and yourself — how the wider-view catastrophes like Katrina have some very specific traumatic impacts when you’re already existing in a state of systemic turmoil in the country. Again, there’s the poignancy of “Night’s” quartet lines in that hook: under the gun, under stress/distress, with the sort of work that these characters have to take — awake and away when your loved ones are sleeping at night; sleeping and distant when you’re awake with them during the day. These characters in “Nights” are guarded in a way that’s vulnerable, too, and a familiar trope resurfaces in Blond: The dream-like euphoria of drugs and sex become escapes.

The album makes the strong argument that there’s never a reason we can’t remove any series of walls and recognize the need for empathy in this pocketed experience of Black America — it’s a critique not only of the frailty and resilience of the black experience, but also the toll of the walls we keep up in order to cope.

Tre Johnson writes at Dearth of a Nation.