Earlier this month, music review website Pitchfork released its list of the top 200 songs and albums of the 2010s. The decided #1 album was Frank Ocean’s Blonde, beating Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (#4), Beyonce’s Beyonce (#3), and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (#2). In a perfect world, these four albums would share the title of best album of the decade. Out of the four, Blonde is the least controversial choice; it is minimalist, quiet, and understated.
However, Pitchfork missteps by calling Blonde a synonym for “American.” While there are nods to American ideals, Blonde is more an exercise in finding solace in nostalgic soundscapes — and it encompasses much more than the concept of America.
Blonde feels familiar. In “Ivy,” Frank sings, “We had time to kill back then / you ain’t a kid no more / we’ll never be those kids again.” He juxtaposes the carefree simplicity of youth with the complicated emotional landscape of adulthood. Frank leaves ambiguity for nostalgia. Anyone could be “those kids” wandering around open fields and having sleepovers. Even when he does refer to a specific experience “we had the X6 back then,” it still feels like the X6 can be replaced by other objects with sentimental meaning.
Personally, Japanese animated films are an intense source of nostalgia. Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira are two that are very important to me. Their vivid imagery, imaginative worlds, and distinct characters have remained with me to this day as a source of comfort. One of my favorite videos on YouTube puts Blonde behind clips from these films. Frank’s immersive tracks fit perfectly with the animated landscapes. Some of the more violent scenes in Akira somehow mesh extremely well with the slower tempo of “Seigfried.”
“Seigfried” contrasts the bright tone of “Ivy” with somber chords and melodies. While “Ivy” reflects the blissful component of nostalgia, “Seigfried” focuses on the darker side: the past is better than the present. Frank singing “maybe I’m a fool to settle for a place with some nice views” and “I’d rather live outside / I’d rather go to jail” reflects his desire to get out of his own head.
In this sense, Blonde is a neo-Romantic album. In 19th century Europe, many artists and writers took to expressing the individual in grand landscapes from mythology and grand battles. This later became deemed as the Romantic movement. Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea on the Fog, John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, and Gustave Courbet’s Le Désespéré are all famous examples of Romantic artworks. The album cover of Blonde serves as a modern version of these paintings. With his hand covering his face, Frank rejects the importance of celebrity identity. Unlike the Romantic period, the modern age of social media does not afford as much anonymity. Frank has tried his best to stay in the shadows despite this. His selfless approach to this album adds to its appeal.
Based on its nostalgic and self-reflective qualities, it confuses me how Pitchfork finds Blonde as a synonym for “American.” Sure, Blonde has several obvious references to American materialism: the BMW X6 as mentioned earlier, the “White Ferrari,” and “Nikes.” Pitchfork proceeds to claim the album is a sort of coping mechanism with the “political disaster” of 2016. Involving Blonde with politics tarnishes its potency. It deserves a world of its own. Listening to Blonde should be more of an introspective experience. The individual-society relationship is explored a lot more in depth in the other albums in Pitchfork’s top five.
Pitchfork wants to justify Blonde politically because it believes the album should reflect the zeitgeist of the current decade. If that were the case, it should’ve chosen To Pimp a Butterfly. At its crux, Blonde is about missing what is not there, not exploring what is. That makes it stand far above the box that music journalists try to put it in, and that’s what truly makes it one of the top records (if not the top record) of the decade.